Chapter 1: Financing the 1933 Elections
On the cold winter weekend of January 28, 1933, Germany was officially without a government. Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and his cabinet had resigned on Saturday afternoon, and eighty-six-year-old President von Hindenburg had not yet appointed a new chancellor. A nervous tension spread over Berlin. Everyone waited for news; most felt Germany was at an historic turning point.
Who would be the next chancellor? Hitler -- the leader of the largest party, the Nazis, who pledged to destroy democracy? Papen -- the aristocratic horseman who had been chancellor before Schleicher, but who had no popular following? Perhaps Schleicher again, if he could persuade the Social Democrats, the second largest political party in the country, to join him in a coalition? Governing Germany in the middle of an economic depression with nine million unemployed was not an enviable task. The country had just had three different chancellors in rapid succession. By tradition, the leader of the largest party was usually appointed chancellor. But the Nazis had been the largest party for over a year, and so far intrigues and political maneuvering had succeeded in keeping Hitler out of power. Everyone guessed what a Hitler government would mean. He had not kept his militarism, anti-Semitism, and dictatorial ambitions a secret.
Political intrigues were so numerous that weekend that no one really knew what was going on. Sensational rumors were being spread throughout the city. Some said an army coup was imminent, that Schleicher and the generals were about to abduct President von Hindenburg and declare martial law. There were also rumors of an armed Nazi uprising and a general strike by the socialist workers.
Hitler and Hermann Goering, the second most powerful man in the Nazi party, stayed up all night on Sunday, January 29, trying to figure out what Hindenburg might do. It was not until after 10 A.M. on Monday that Hitler received a summons to the president's office. Even at that point, the Nazis were not certain whether Hitler would be appointed chancellor or Hindenburg would ask him to serve as vice-chancellor.
Across the street from the Chancellery, in the Kaiserhof Hotel, Hitler's lieutenants were waiting, unsure of what was going on. Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, said:
In the street the crowd stands waiting between the Kaiserhof and the Chancellery. We are torn between doubt, hope, joy and despair. We have been deceived too often to be able, wholeheartedly, to believe in the great miracle. [S.A.] Chief of Staff Roehm stands at the window (with binoculars) watching the door of the Chancellery from which the Fuehrer [the leader, Hitler] must emerge. We shall be able to judge by his face if the interview was a success. Torturing hours of waiting. At last, a car draws up in front of the entrance. The crowd cheers. They seem to feel that a great change is taking place....
A few moments later, he is with us. He says nothing. His eyes are full of tears. It has come! The Fuehrer is appointed Chancellor. He has already been sworn in by the President of the Reich. All of us are dumb with emotion. Everyone clasps the Fuehrer's hand....Outside the Kaiserhof, the masses are in a wild uproar....The thousands soon become tens of thousands. Endless streams of people flood the Wilhelmstrasse. We set to work...at once.
Hitler's victory was not a complete one by any means. He had been appointed chancellor in a coalition government. Papen was to be his vice-chancellor, and all the powerful cabinet posts were held by Papen's conservative allies, rather than the Nazis. But at the moment, Hitler's followers weren't worried about the details; for them the only thing that mattered was that Hitler was chancellor. They had come to power! All day, crowds gathered in the square outside the Kaiserhof Hotel and the Chancellery.
At dusk Nazi storm troopers in their brown uniforms gathered in the Tiergarten park, along with men of the Stahlhelm, an ultranationalistic veterans' organization, for a torchlight victory parade through the center of Berlin. As soon as it was dark, they came marching by the thousands through the Brandenburg Gate, carrying swastika flags and the black, white, and red flags of the German empire. Bands marched between the units, beating their big drums as the men sang old German military songs. But as each band came to the Pariser Platz, where the French embassy was located, they stopped whatever they were playing and, with an introductory roll of drums, broke into the tune of the challenging war song "Victorious We Will Crush the French."
The torches carried by the marchers glowed hypnotically in the darkness. To foreign witnesses, it was a frightening sight. "The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy," Ambassador François-Poncet wrote, "whence, with heavy heart and filled with foreboding, I watched this luminous wake." Liberal Germans found it an "ominous sight." It was, wrote one German reporter, "a night of deadly menace, a nightmare in...blazing torches."
As the marchers came by the Chancellery, there were tumultuous cheers for Hitler, who stood in an open window saluting them. He was so excited that night, he could hardly stand still. He was raising his arm up and down heiling, smiling, and laughing so much, his eyes filled with tears. "It was an extraordinary experience," recalled Papen, who was standing behind Hitler. "The endless repetition of the triumphal cry: 'Heil, Heil, Sieg Heil!' rang in my ears like a tocsin." When Hitler turned to speak with Papen, his voice choked with emotion. "What an immense task we have set for ourselves, Herr von Papen -- we must never part until our work is accomplished." Hitler and Papen were much closer allies than anyone at the time imagined.
It was after midnight when the parade ended. Being too excited to sleep, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and a few other Nazis sat up talking for hours. They could hardly believe it had actually happened: they were in the Chancellery at last. That evening, Hitler said to Goebbels, "No one gets me out of here alive." It was one of the few promises he kept.
On the morning of January 31, Hitler's storm troopers gave the German people a glimpse of what Nazi rule would be like. All over Germany, thugs in brown shirts took possession of the streets and roughed up Communists, socialists, and Jews; they chased socialist mayors and officials out of government buildings and even broke into the private homes of their political enemies. When people complained to Papen, he laughed. "Let the storm troopers have their fling." Among his friends at the Herrenklub, an exclusive gentlemens club, he boasted: "We've hired Hitler." To a skeptic he replied: "What do you want? I have Hindenburg's confidence. Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he'll squeak."
The facts seemed to support Papen's optimism. Not only did Papen have Hindenburg"s confidence, but in fact the old president had promised never to receive Hitler unless he was accompanied by his vice-chancellor. Papen also held the important post of minister-president of Prussia, Germany's largest and most powerful state. From the composition of the cabinet, it seemed all the real power was in the hands of the conservatives: the aristocratic General von Blomberg was minister of defense, Baron von Neurath, a career diplomat, was foreign minister, and the old archreactionary Hugenberg was both minister of economics and minister of agriculture. The Nazis were outnumbered six to two.
The two Nazis in the cabinet, Wilhelm Frick and Goering, held posts that were thought to be insignificant. Frick was minister of the interior, but he did not control the police, which in Germany was under the jurisdiction of the individual state governments. Goering was made minister without portfolio, but with the promise that he would be minister of aviation as soon as Germany had an air force. He was also named minister of the interior of Prussia, an office that did not receive much notice by the public but did control the Prussian police.
The aristocrats and gentlemen of the Right who made up the majority of Hitler's cabinet hated the concept of democracy even more than the Nazis did. These men belonged to the old ruling class of the kaiser's Germany. They wanted to regain their old position of supremacy, lost in 1918. They wanted to restore the monarchy, suppress the socialist unions, avenge the loss of World War I, and make Germany the dominant power in Europe. It was obvious why such reactionary nationalists helped put Hitler in power: their goals and his were very similar.
Few people knew the full extent of Papen's collaboration with Hitler. Historians have said he "did more than anyone else outside the Nazi party to help Hitler to power." Papen helped Hitler because he was trying to control him and use the Nazis for his own aims.
Papen was a handsome aristocratic-looking man with distinguished gray hair and an officer's mustache. From an impoverished family of the Westphalian nobility, he became a General Staff officer, a skillful horseman, and a man of great charm. After a successful marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Saar industrialist, he bought a large block of shares in the Center party's newspaper, Germania. For a short time in 1932, Papen was chancellor, but his government had no popular support. Papen believed it would be rather easy for an aristocratic officer like himself to manipulate a former corporal, like Hitler, and thus be able to use the Nazi's mass following to accomplish the aims of the upper-class conservative nationalists.
Hitler immediately began to outmaneuver his conservative colleagues. He reported to the cabinet that the Center party was making impossible demands and could not be counted on to form a coalition with the Nazis and the Nationalists that would have a majority in the Reichstag. Because of this situation, Hitler argued he would have to call for new elections. The only "demand" the Center party made was that Hitler promise to govern constitutionally, but none of the other members of the cabinet bothered to check Hitler's statement. They agreed to new elections on the condition that Hitler promise that the composition of the cabinet would not change regardless of the outcome of the voting.
New elections would provide Hitler with a chance to improve on the poor results the Nazis had received at the polls the past November. If the Nazis won a clear majority in the elections, they might be able to get rid of their coalition partners. Hitler had every reason to believe the election campaign would be a big success. The entire machinery of government, including the radio, was now under Nazi control and could be used for campaigning. The party had been flooded with new applicants for membership since he had become chancellor. In the cabinet meeting on February 2, Hitler discussed his preparations for the elections. Wilhelm Frick, the Nazi minister of the interior, proposed that the government set aside a million marks for the election campaign. Count von Schwerin von Krosigk, the minister of finance, rejected this suggestion. Hitler did not force the issue. He would have to get the money elsewhere.
The theme of the Nazi election campaign was to be the fight against communism. Hitler opened the attack in a late-night radio broadcast to the nation on February 1. He blamed the hard times Germany had gone through since 1918 on the Social Democrats, which had been the largest party in the Reichstag during most of those years. The Social Democrats, he reminded his listeners, were actually a Marxist party. "Fourteen years of Marxism," he said, "have ruined Germany; one year of bolshevism [communism] would destroy her. The richest and fairest territories of the world would be turned into a smoking heap of ruins. Even the sufferings of the last decade and a half could not be compared to the misery of a Europe in the heart of which the red flag of destruction has been hoisted." He went on to promise to put the unemployed back to work and save the peasants from bankruptcy.
On his fourth day in office, just after opening the election campaign, Hitler took time off to attend a very important dinner. He had been invited to the home of General von Hammerstein, chief of staff of the army, to meet the leading officers of the army and navy. In a speech that lasted almost two hours, Hitler explained his plans for rebuilding German military power.
The generals were the real power in Germany during the Weimar period. After World War II, many Germans tried to cover up the role certain members of the Officer Corps had played in helping to put Hitler in power. Many historians naively accepted this view, but the real story is quite different. Traditionally, the German Army ruled from behind the scenes and had the final "power to veto" any important issue. After the loss of World War I, the Versailles Treaty severely restricted the size of the German Army. The only way the generals could maintain mass training and develop new weapons was to finance private paramilitary units, like the Free Corps, with secret army funds.
Hitler not only began his career as an army agent, but even in the 1930s he was supported by a powerful faction in the army. Over several years, General von Schleicher, who was in charge of a secret informal political department of the army, funneled over ten million marks to Hitler. Why? Many military officers wanted an authoritarian government that could unify the nation. The people needed to be infused with a new spirit of patriotism because powerful interests were planning a war of revenge against the Allies. Naturally there was a division of opinion among the generals as to how much power to give Hitler.
Hindenburg originally had strong reservations about appointing a man from a lower-class background, like Hitler, chancellor. However, the aggressive action the Nazis took against Communists was admired by Hindenburg, and his relationship with Hitler rapidly improved.
One day, Hindenburg summoned Hitler when Papen was away from Berlin. Hitler informed the president that Papen was out of town and reminded him of the rule he (Hindenburg) had made, that the chancellor could visit him only when accompanied by the vice-chancellor. "The old gentleman [Hindenburg]," said Hitler, "replied that he wished to see me alone, and that in the future the presence of Papen could be regarded as unnecessary. Within three weeks, he had progressed so far that his attitude towards me became affectionate and paternal. Talking of the elections fixed for the 3rd of March, he said, 'What are we going to do if you fail to get a majority? We shall have the same difficulties all over again.'"
At the beginning of the election campaign, Hitler and Papen persuaded old President von Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree to protect law and order. The decree gave Nazi officials the right to prohibit public meetings. Newspapers could be suppressed if they "incited" civil disobedience or published "false" reports. The decree gave Hitler and Papen a very useful weapon in the election campaign.
There was certainly plenty of election violence. The Nazi storm troopers invaded the beer halls and bars where the Communists and Social Democrats held their meetings. There were fistfights and bloody street brawls with clubs and razor blades. During the election campaign, from January 30 to March 5, over seventy people were killed in political violence.
Where the use of violence was involved, Hermann Goering was the expert. Thus he played a decisive role in the first year of Hitler's government. Without Goering's drive and ruthlessness, Hitler might never have been able to transform his position as chancellor to that of dictator.
During the war, Goering had been a fighter ace in the Richthofen Squadron and won the Pour le Mérite (Blue Max), Germany's highest decoration. He succeeded his famous commander Baron von Richthofen (the Red Baron), and was himself appointed commander of the Richthofen Squadron. After Germany lost the war, Goering became bitter. For a short time, he commanded Hitler's storm troopers, but his most important job for Hitler was as fund-raiser. Being from an upperclass background, Goering had access to princes, industrialists, and bankers. During the 1920s and early 1930s, he obtained millions of marks for Hitler. In 1918 Goering had been a handsome, slender man; but during the 1920s he put on weight. By 1933, he was very fat. But in spite of his size, Goering had enormous energy.
Goering's political power was based on his position as Prussian minister of interior, which controlled the police in almost two-thirds of Germany. As soon as he was appointed, he moved quickly to dismiss all senior police officials with Social Democratic or moderate sympathies and replace them with storm trooper officers or other Nazis.
In mid-February, Goering issued an order to the Prussian police: "With Communist terrorism...there must be no trifling, and when necessary revolvers must be used without regard for the consequences. Policemen who fire their revolvers in the execution of their duties, will be protected by me...but those who hesitate to shoot will be punished according to regulations."
On February 22, Goering took a major step toward turning the Prussian police into his private Nazi Army by recruiting S.A. and S.S. men into the police force as "auxiliaries." Insisting that the resources of the regular police were stretched to the limit and in urgent need of reinforcements, he drafted fifty thousand storm troopers into the force. As soon as they put a white armband marked SPECIAL POLICE on their brown shirts (S.A.), or black shirts (S.S.), they represented the law. In election violence and the resulting street fights, Goering's auxiliary police used their nightsticks to help their Nazi comrades "give the Reds a good beating." Also, they often intimidated the general public by marching into restaurants and trying to force the frightened patrons to buy photographs of Hitler or Goering at exorbitant prices. Goering's auxiliary police plus the Nazified regular Prussian police made Goering, one of the most powerful men in Germany, second only to the minister of defense in the number of armed men he could command.
Why did Papen give such power to Goering? Journalists at the time and later historians contended that when the Hitler-Papen cabinet was formed, the fact that the Prussian minister of interior controlled the Prussian police was simply overlooked. This argument makes no sense. Papen was a master of political intrigue who certainly knew which office controlled the police force. He could have stopped Goering at once if he had wanted to. But Papen did nothing, apparently because he had made a deal with Hitler and Goering at the time the cabinet had been sworn in. This appears to have been just the first step of a three-phase plan Papen, Hitler, and their coconspirators had concocted to turn the democratic government of Germany into an authoritarian regime. Goering was entrusted with such power because he was more of an upper-class officer of the old school than he was a Nazi. In fact, the conservatives saw him as a counterbalance to Hitler. Papen thought he could use Goering to help control Hitler and the more radical Nazis.
While Goering's police were enforcing the authority of the Nazi regime, Hitler was busy enacting emergency laws to restrict the freedom of his opponents. Although initially he had some difficulty getting Hindenburg to approve his decrees to limit the freedom of the press, eventually his persuasive ability won over the old president. Hitler later bragged about how he had accomplished this: "I played a little trick on him and addressed him not as a civilian with 'Mr. President,' but as a soldier with 'Field Marshal,' and developed the argument that in the Army criticism from below was never permitted...for what would happen if the N.C.O. passed judgement on the orders of the Captain, the Captain on those of the General and so on? This the old gentleman [Hindenburg] admitted and without further ado, approved of my policy saying, 'You are quite right, only superiors have the right to criticize!' and with these words the freedom of the press was doomed."
By mid-February the Nazis were running short of money for the election campaign. Hitler's strategy, which called for a whirlwind propaganda extravaganza, would have to be canceled if new funds were not obtained somehow. The Nazi party rank and file had been called on to give and give again, but no further money could be extracted from ordinary people in the middle of a depression.
Goering and Hjalmar Schacht, a pro-Nazi banker, sat down together and tried to come up with a plan to help Hitler out of his financial difficulty. These men were familiar with raising funds from industry; as they saw it, the industrialists needed the Nazis and the Nazis needed the industrialists. Since the voters had entirely deserted the traditional moderate parties financed by industry, the industrialists suddenly found themselves without political influence. Up to this time, most industrialists had not contributed to Hitler.
The industrialists now had an excellent opportunity to gain influence over the Nazi party by providing Hitler with the desperately needed campaign financing. Little risk was involved, since the Nazis were already a part of the government. On the other hand, if the industrialists didn't give any money to the Nazis, it would be very risky to have no influence over the largest party in the country. Goering and Schacht had talked with their numerous contacts among the industrialists and determined there was at least a good chance the majority of non-Nazi industrialists would come over to Hitler or at least help finance him if approached properly.
Goering sent out telegrams to twenty-five of the most prominent industrialists in Germany, inviting them to Berlin on February 20 to meet with Chancellor Hitler. The meeting took place in the early evening at Goering's residence, the palace of the Reichstag president. The "palace" itself was a large old baroque building with a somber dark interior and heavy Renaissance furniture. Almost all of the invited industrialists attended.
Among those present were Gustav Krupp, the largest armaments manufacturer in the world; Georg von Schnitzler, and two other directors of I.G. Farben, the chemical cartel that had become one of the largest industrial organizations in Europe, and Albert Voegler of United Steel. Also present were several leading bankers and chief executives from other firms in the metal, iron, textile, and automobile industries. The guests sat in chairs that had been carefully arranged according to the power and wealth of their firms. In the front row sat Gustav Krupp, von Schnitzler, two other I.G. Farben directors, and Albert Voegler, of United Steel. Goering spoke first to introduce Hitler. Most of those present had never before met him personally.
With the brief preliminary remarks over, Hitler stood up and began a speech to reassure his audience that he would encourage private enterprise and respect the sanctity of private property. "An impossible situation is created," said Hitler, "when one section of a people favors private property while another denies it. A struggle of that sort tears a people apart and the fight continues until one section emerges victorious....It is not by accident that one man produces more than another; the concept of private property is rooted in this fact....Human beings are anything but equal. As far as the economy is concerned, I have but one desire, namely, that it may enter upon a peaceful future....There will, however, not be a domestic peace unless Marxism has been exterminated."
When Hitler finished speaking the industrialists gave him warm applause. Goering then told the audience that the purpose of the meeting was to finance the election campaign. As far as the money he was asking them to contribute was concerned, Goering said, "The sacrifice asked for from industry will be easier to bear if it is realized that the election of March 5 will be the last for ten years, in all likelihood, indeed, for one hundred years."
Goering was certainly not trying to hide what the Nazis were planning. The audience seemed relieved at the prediction. No more elections would mean no more campaign contributions.
Hjalmar Schacht then announced: "And now gentlemen, your contributions." For several moments there were hushed conversations as the industrialists talked among themselves. Then Krupp stood up and pledged one million marks to the election campaign. Schnitzler of I.G. Farben pledged 400,000 marks. One by one, Schacht got commitments from most of the other members of the audience. By the time the evening was over, he had managed to raise three million marks for the campaign. Naturally this money was to be divided between the Nazis and their coalition partners.
On February 21, the day after Hitler's meeting with the industrialists, the Communists began to take a more aggressive stand in street fights with Nazi storm troopers. The Union of Red Fighters urged the workers to "disarm" the S.A. and the S.S. "Every comrade a commander in the coming Red Army! This is our oath to the Red soldiers of the Soviet Union."
The most violent exhortations were coming from fringe Communist groups rather than the official party leaders. There were, however, still at least six million Communists in Germany, and many working-class neighborhoods in Berlin were solidly "Red." A Communist uprising was certainly a possibility.
Hitler and Goering believed that a Communist revolution was imminent and they might soon be fighting a civil war. Their strategy, which had already been determined at the first cabinet meeting, was to let the Communists make the first move and then crush them with a strong counterattack. Goering took the increasingly radical Communist rhetoric as an indication that the Red uprising was in the offing and decided to try to provoke them into acting prematurely.
On February 24, Goering's Prussian police raided the Karl Liebknecht House, Communist headquarters in Berlin. No prominent Communists were captured because they escaped from the building through a secret underground tunnel while the police were crashing in the front door. In fact, many Communist leaders had gone into hiding or had quietly slipped out of the country to Russia a week or so earlier. The police did, however, find plenty of Communist literature that was stored in the basement. Along with propaganda pamphlets summoning the masses to armed revolt, Goering said he found the plans for the Communist insurrection. Government buildings were to be set on fire, vital factories sabotaged, Hitler and other political figures assassinated, food and water supplies poisoned, and general looting ordered once the uprising had begun. These were probably just "contingency" plans. The official leadership of the Communist party seemed determined to lay low and not be provoked by the Nazis.
On the evening of February 27, Hitler was taking a night off from campaigning and enjoying dinner with Goebbels and his family in the suburbs. Suddenly the telephone rang at Goebbels's residence. It was Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler's foreign press chief. In a very agitated voice he said the Reichstag was on fire.
Meanwhile at the Herrenklub, just a few blocks from the Reichstag, Papen and President von Hindenburg were having dinner. "Suddenly," Papen later recalled, "we noticed a red glow through the windows and heard sounds of shouting in the street. One of the servants came hurrying up to me and whispered: 'The Reichstag is on fire!' which I repeated to the President. He got up and from the window we could see the dome of the Reichstag looking as though it were illuminated by search lights. Every now and then a burst of flame and a swirl of smoke blurred the outline."
A small crowd of people gathered in the Tiergarten Park across from the Reichstag to watch the firemen fight the blaze. Two large black Mercedes came speeding up to the police cordon around the building and were waved on through. As soon as the first car came to a stop outside the main entrance of the Reichstag building, Hitler jumped out and ran up the broad front steps two at a time with the tails of his trench coat flying. Goebbels and a bodyguard followed him. Once inside, Hitler found Goering, whose face was flush from the heat of the fire. Around him were firemen, fire hoses, and policemen.
Goering came over to Hitler saying: "Without a doubt this is the work of the Communists, Herr Chancellor....We have succeeded in arresting one of the incendiaries." "Who is he?" Goebbels asked. Turning to him, Goering replied: "We don't know yet, but we shall squeeze it out of him."
"Are the other public buildings safe?" Hitler asked.
"I have taken every possible precaution," answered Goering. "I have mobilized all the police. Every public building is guarded. We are ready for anything."
Outside one of the policemen told a reporter: "They got one of them who did it, a man with nothing but his trousers on. Seems to have used his coat and shirt to start the fire."
The man the police captured was Marinus van der Lubbe, a twenty-four-year-old eccentric Communist from Holland. He was stocky, very nearsighted, and awkward, which gave him the appearance of a "half-wit"; but he was not stupid by any means. He had left the Dutch Communist party because it was not radical enough and joined a Communist splinter faction. He had accurately seen Hitler's becoming chancellor as a key turning point in history. Deciding that the Communists and socialists had to do everything they could to resist Hitler, he immediately set out on foot from Leyden, Holland, to Berlin. Hitchhiking part of the way, he arrived in Berlin in a few weeks and went around attending Communist and socialist rallies. Finally he decided the German workers would start a revolution only if they were motivated by some great event. He thought a bold act of terrorism would inspire the masses to revolt.
On the evening of February 26, van der Lubbe had started fires in the Berlin City Hall, the former Imperial Palace, and a government welfare office. The fires were all discovered and put out before they had done any significant damage. The next day, February 27, he bought more matches in the afternoon and then headed for the Reichstag. The weather was bitter cold and there was a frigid wind. He stopped in the Alexander Platz post office for half an hour to get warm. It was dark by the time he reached the Reichstag building. Dressed in a peaked cap and the worn clothes of a manual laborer, he went unnoticed as he circled the Reichstag building several times trying to find the best way in. At about nine in the evening, he found the western entrance to the ornate old building deserted and climbed over the wall. The Reichstag was not in session, so security precautions were minimal.
Once inside the dark empty building, van der Lubbe found his way to the debating chamber, which had wooden deputies' seats and wood-paneled walls and thus was an ideal place to start a fire. It took him only a few minutes to set several fires throughout the chamber. The flames took hold and began to spread. The heat from the blaze broke the circular glass dome overhead and created an updraft, which turned the debating chamber into an inferno. A policeman alerted by a passer-by called the fire department. Van der Lubbe was arrested about twenty minutes later, still hanging around outside the burning building with incendiary material on him. He made a defiant confession saying he did it "as a protest."
Although van der Lubbe's confession was relayed to Goering immediately, he was convinced that the fire was the result of an organized Communist plot and the work of a number of men. Hitler, Goering, and fire department officials began a tour of the building to inspect the damage. They had to step over charred debris and puddles of water. In a hallway Goering found a rag that smelled of gasoline on the floor by one of the half-charred curtains. "Here you can see for yourself, Herr Chancellor," he said, "how they started the fire. They hung rags soaked in gasoline over the furniture and set it on fire."
Turning to Sefton Delmer, a British reporter who was accompanying them, Hitler said: "God grant that this is the work of the Communists. You are witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history. This fire is the beginning." Tripping over a fire hose, he quickly recovered his balance. "You see this building," he went on, "you see how it is aflame? If the Communists got hold of Europe and had control of it for...two months, the whole continent would be aflame like this building."
While they were still in the Reichstag building, one of the police inspectors had told Hitler and Goering that the arson looked like the work of a single man. "This is a cunning and well-prepared plot," Hitler scoffed. The more he and Goering talked, the more they sold themselves on the idea of a Communist conspiracy. Hitler was also beginning to realize the great propaganda opportunity the fire offered him. "Now we'll show them!" said Hitler as he became more excited. "Anyone who stands in our way will be mowed down! The German people have been soft too long. Every Communist official must be shot. All Communist deputies must be hanged this very night. All friends of the Communists must be locked up, and that goes for the Social Democrats as well."
After Hitler calmed down, he and Goering drafted more practical orders for the police. By midnight, emergency broadcasts were going out all over Germany on police radios, calling for the arrest of all Communist Reichstag deputies and all local Communist leaders. All Communist newspapers were to be shut down.
After Hitler and Goering parted, Hitler headed for the Berlin offices of the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party newspaper, to see how the editors were going to cover the fire. "It took half an hour before I could find anyone to let me in," recalled Hitler. "Inside the editorial offices were empty. The only writer in the building was down in the proof room, hastily writing a short article on the fire for the 'local news' page the next day." Hitler was furious.
"An occurrence like this must go on the front page," he shouted. "Surely your instinct as a journalist should make you realize that!" Someone was sent to get the head editor out of bed. When he arrived, Hitler cursed and raged at him: "Your article ought to be humming through the presses now! All I can say is that it's a masterpiece of inefficiency!" Throwing his trench coat and hat over a chair, Hitler sat down and began to write a lead article for the next day's paper. The front-page headline read "COMMUNISTS SET FIRE TO THE REICHSTAG!" Hitler stayed at the newspaper offices until he could examine the first issues coming off the presses. By that time it was dawn.
Hitler got no sleep that night. By the time he returned to his quarters in the Chancellery, there was just time to take a bath, change clothes, and eat something before getting ready for the cabinet meeting that morning. He sometimes seemed possessed by an almost demonic energy that enabled him to go without sleep for several days. The more he had time to think, the more he recognized the tremendous opportunity the Reichstag fire offered him. The fear of communism had been the major issue of his election campaign. The fire offered visible proof of the danger that could help terrify middle-class voters. The fire would weaken any resistance the army officers and aristocrats might have to granting him full power.
The excitement of the fire the night before made Hitler bold. He opened the cabinet meeting and began to rant against the Communists. The present danger, he said, called for "a ruthless settling of accounts" with the Communists. He proposed an emergency decree that he and Frick, the Nazi minister of the interior, had hastily written that morning before the cabinet meeting. The decree called for the suspension of all civil liberties: the right of freedom of speech, free press, freedom of assembly. The Weimar constitution, which had granted the rights of a democratic society to Germans since 1919, was to be wiped out in one blow.
There were, however, objections from some other members of the cabinet, particularly the reactionary Hugenberg, who was the leader of the Nationalist party. He agreed with Hitler about the Communist danger and even the need to suspend civil liberties. But he argued that Hitler's decree did not go far enough! He wanted an immediate military dictatorship; a state of military emergency, rule by a group of generals; mass arrests of all Communist and Social Democrat leaders; the outlawing of both the Communist and Social Democratic parties; and the indefinite postponement of the Reichstag elections.
A military dictatorship would have destroyed everything Hitler had worked for. Power was about to slip from his grasp just as he was laying his hands on it. Hugenburg and the conservatives had a majority in the cabinet and could easily outvote Hitler and the two other Nazis.
Just when it seemed Hitler was trapped, General von Blomberg came to his rescue. Blomberg, the minister of defense, said the army was not interested in assuming dictatorial power or declaring martial law. After all, General von Blomberg and his clique had conspired to help make Hitler chancellor to avoid the need for a military dictatorship. By tradition the German Army wanted to avoid involvement in politics -- at least avoid involvement in the everyday business of governing. They wanted to remain the power behind the throne and above all they wanted to avoid being involved in a civil war.
The cabinet meeting went on for hours. Once General von Blomberg refused to accept power on behalf of the army, Hitler was able to persuade the reluctant cabinet to go along with his original decree with some slight modifications. A civil state of emergency was thus substituted for martial law, with the cabinet holding the power usually given to a commanding general.
With the new emergency decree "For the Protection of the People and State," Goering's police became even more powerful. Truckloads of storm troopers and police roared through cities all over Germany, arresting Communists in the middle of the night, dragging them out of bed, and taking them to an S.A. barracks where they were savagely beaten. Sometimes the victims were shot and thrown into a river or lake, or dumped by the roadside. The tremendous hostility between the Nazis and the Communists had been brewing a long time. For years, Communists had beaten up their political opponents and disrupted business and industry with violent strikes.
Far from disapproving of the brutal way the Nazis were treating the Communists, most upper- and middle-class businessmen were relieved to see the "Reds" crushed. The owner of a small factory in northern Germany who was interviewed by a foreign reporter said he was glad the Nazis had taken action against the Communists. This man was not a Nazi and disapproved of many of Hitler's methods, but in the fall of 1932 some of his loyal employees told him that his name was on the death list of the Communist party. When the Red uprising began, he was to be executed, his wife and children taken hostage, and his factory burned. For months he lived in fear. He kept a car secretly waiting near his home so that he could be ready to escape across the border when the Communist revolution began. It would certainly be understandable if the purge of the Communists came as a great relief to such a man.
Were the Communists really planning a revolution in Germany in 1933? Hitler and Goering probably believed that a Communist uprising was imminent. They both had lived through the Communist revolution in 1918 and knew many people who had lost everything in the Russian Revolution. The approximately six or seven million Communists in Germany would have been difficult to suppress without a bloody civil war. The day after the fire, Goering, as Prussian minister of the interior, addressed the nation by radio, describing the burning of the Reichstag as one part of a Communist plan to commit acts of terror throughout the country. In Germany Goering's explanation of the fire was widely believed. In fact, peasants in the Brandenburg countryside around Berlin were so frightened they took turns as sentries at the village wells to prevent Red terrorists from poisoning their water supply.
However, outside Germany, where people were not so naive, the Communist conspiracy story was discounted. Soon there was a growing sentiment that the Nazis had burned the Reichstag themselves as a pretext for suppressing the Communist party. In order to quiet the international uproar, Hitler agreed to a public trial for van der Lubbe and three other Communists accused of being conspirators. Fortunately for Hitler the trial would not begin until after the elections.
The Reichstag fire worked to Hitler's advantage by winning over a number of middle- and upper-class voters terrified by the thought of a Red revolution in Germany. Hitler was clever enough not to outlaw the Communist party until after the election so the lower-class vote would remain divided between the Communists and the Social Democrats.
As the election day neared, the Nazis finished up with a whirlwind campaign. There were torchlight parades and mass rallies. On the hills above the Rhine valley, Nazi bonfires lit up the night. The Communist danger was Hitler's main campaign theme.
While Hitler spoke in lofty terms of self-sacrifice, Goering was speaking with more brutal frankness. He told an audience in Frankfurt: "My measures will not be crippled by any bureaucracy. I won't have to worry about justice, my mission is only to destroy and exterminate [Marxism]." At a private dinner party for wealthy Nazi supporters, Goering spoke openly of the things he intended to do. "I know exactly what is happening all through the Reich....The remotest hideout of the Communists is known to us. There were eight million Communist votes at the last election. We won't forget them. We're building concentration camps now." His fat chest glittered with medals and a blood lust flickered in his eyes as he went on: "You must not be shocked by what some people call excesses. Flogging, general cruelty, even deaths...these are the inevitable in a forceful, sweeping young revolution." No one objected or contradicted.
The German people went to the polls on March 5, 1933, for the last free elections Germany would have in years. In spite of all the propaganda, intimidation, and millions of marks contributed to Hitler's campaign, the majority of Germans voted against him. True, the Nazis received more votes than any other party, 17,277,180 or 44 percent of the total vote. Hitler had won five million more votes than the last election, but he was still unable to get a decisive majority. The Communists received 4,848,100 votes, even though most of their leaders were in jail. The Social Democrats maintained their position as the second largest party with 7,181,600 votes. The Nationalist party, led by Hugenberg, was very disappointed with its showing of only 3,136,760 votes.
Although the Nazis openly boasted of their "victory," secretly Hitler was also disappointed. He had a bare majority in the new Riechstag with 288 Nazi seats, plus 52 Nationalist seats, out of a total of 647. This was enough to remain in office and perhaps carry out the everyday business of government, but it was far from the two-thirds majority he needed to vote himself dictatorial powers.
President von Hindenburg was pleased with the election results. At last, he had a nationalistic government that had a majority in the Reichstag. When the election returns came in he was visibly excited and boomed out in a satisfied voice: "Hitler wins!" After the election results were confirmed, Hitler said Hindenburg "told me straight out that he had always been averse to the parliamentary game, and was delighted that the comedy of elections was now done with once and for all."
Copyright © 1997 by James Pool