The Republic Collapses

Amid the swirling mess in Berlin of political intrigue, rumors, and disorder, the SA, the Nazi storm troopers, stood out as an ominous presence. In the spring of 1932, many in the German democratic government came to believe the Brownshirts were about to take over by force.

There were now over 400,000 storm troopers under the leadership of SA Chief Ernst Röhm. Many members of the SA considered themselves to be a true revolutionary army and were anxious to live up to that idea. Adolf Hitler had to rein them in from time to time so they wouldn't upset his own carefully laid plans to undermine the republic.

Hitler knew he could not succeed as Führer of Germany without the support of existing institutions such as the German Army and the powerful German industrialists, both of whom kept a wary eye on the revolutionary SA.

Above Left: Chancellor Heinrich Bruening - the last in a long line of noble politicians who tried to preserve the Republic. Above Right: General Kurt von Schleicher - contemptuous of the struggling Republic and determined to grab power for himself. Below: Franz von Papen who became deeply involved in the political intrigue that brought Hitler to power.

In April of 1932, Heinrich Bruening, Chancellor of Germany, invoked Article 48 of the constitution and issued a decree banning the SA and SS all across Germany. The Nazis were outraged and wanted Hitler to fight the ban. But Hitler, always a step ahead of them all, knew better. He agreed, knowing the republic was on its last legs and that opportunity would soon come along for him.

That opportunity came in the form of Kurt von Schleicher, a scheming, ambitious Army officer who had ideas of leading Germany himself. But he made the mistake (that would prove fatal) of underestimating Hitler. Schleicher was acquainted with Hitler and had been the one who arraigned for Hitler to meet Hindenburg, a meeting that went poorly for Hitler.

On May 8, 1932, Schleicher held a secret meeting with Hitler and offered a proposal. The ban on the SA and SS would be lifted, the Reichstag dissolved and new elections called, and Chancellor Bruening would be dumped, if Hitler would support him in a conservative nationalist government. Hitler agreed.

Schleicher's skillful treachery behind the scenes in Berlin first resulted in the humiliation and ousting of General Wilhelm Groener, a longtime trusted aide to President Hindenburg and friend of the republic. In the Reichstag, Groener, who supported the ban on the SA, took a severe public tongue lashing from Hermann Göring and was hooted and booed by Goebbels and the rest of the Nazis.

"We covered him with such catcalls that the whole house began to tremble and shake with laughter. In the end one could only have pity for him. That man is finished," Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary in 1932.

Groener was pressured by Schleicher to resign. He appealed without success to Hindenburg and wound up resigning on May 13. Schleicher's next target was Chancellor Bruening.

Heinrich Bruening was one of the last men in Germany who stood up to Hitler with the best interest of the people at heart. He was responsible for getting Hindenburg re-elected as president to keep out Hitler and preserve the republic. He was also hard at work on the international scene to help the German economy by seeking an end to war reparations. But his economic policies at home brought dismal results. As Germany's economic situation got worse, with nearly six million unemployed, Bruening was labeled "The Hunger Chancellor."

Bruening had also continued the dangerous precedent of ruling by decree. He invoked Article 48 of the German constitution several times to break the political stalemate in Berlin.

To Schleicher and Hitler, he was simply in the way and had to go. Schleicher went to work on him by undermining the support of Hindenburg. Bruening was already in trouble with Hindenburg, who blamed him for the political turmoil that had made it necessary to run for re-election at age 85 against the 'Bohemian Corporal' Adolf Hitler.

Bruening also made an error in proposing that the huge estates of bankrupt aristocrats be divided up and given to peasants, sounding like a Marxist. Those same aristocrats, along with big industrialists, had scraped together the money to buy Hindenburg an estate of his own. When Hindenburg took his Easter vacation there in mid-May, he had to listen to their complaints about Bruening. All the while, Schleicher was at work against Bruening as well.

On May 29, 1932, Hindenburg called in Bruening and told him to resign. The next day, Heinrich Bruening handed in his resignation, effectively ending democracy in Germany.

Schleicher was now in control. He chose as his puppet chancellor, an unknown socialite named Franz von Papen who had grave doubts about his own ability to function in such a high office. Hindenburg, however, took a liking to Papen and encouraged him to take the job.

May 1932 - A mass gathering of the unemployed outside a government-run job office in Berlin. Such gatherings sometimes led to street riots. Below: Chancellor Papen (third from right) with his befuddled Cabinet in June 1932.

The aristocratic Papen assembled a cabinet of men like himself. This ineffective cabinet of aristocrats and industrialists presided over a nation that would soon be on the verge of anarchy.

When Adolf Hitler was asked by President Hindenburg if he would support Papen as chancellor, he said yes. On June 4th, the Reichstag was dissolved and new elections were called for the end of July. On June 15, the ban on the SA and SS was lifted. The secret promises made to the Nazis by Schleicher had been fulfilled.

Murder and violence soon erupted on a scale never before seen in Germany. Roaming groups of Nazi Brownshirts walked the streets singing Nazi songs and looking for fights.

"Blut muss fliessen, Blut muss fliessen! Blut muss fliessen Knuppelhageldick! Haut'se doch zusammen, haut'se doch zusammen! Diese gotverdammte Juden Republik!" the Nazi storm troopers sang.

Ttranslation: "Blood must flow, blood must flow! Blood must flow as cudgel thick as hail! Let's smash it up, let's smash it up! That goddamned Jewish republic!"

The Nazis found many Communists in the streets wanting a fight and they began regularly shooting at each other. Hundreds of gun battles took place. On July 17, the Nazis under police escort brazenly marched into a Communist area near Hamburg in the state of Prussia. A big shoot-out occurred in which 19 people were killed and nearly 300 wounded. It came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."

Papen invoked Article 48 and proclaimed martial law in Berlin and also took over the government of the German state of Prussia by naming himself Reich Commissioner. Germany had taken a big step closer to authoritarian rule.

Hitler now decided that Papen was simply in the way and had to go.

"I regard your cabinet only as a temporary solution and will continue my efforts to make my Party the strongest in the country. The chancellorship will then devolve on me," Hitler told Papen.

The July elections would provide that opportunity. The Nazis, sensing total victory, campaigned with fanatical energy. Hitler was now speaking to adoring German audiences of up to 100,000 at a time. The phenomenon of large scale 'Führer worship' had begun. On July 31st, the people voted and gave the Nazis 13,745,000 votes, 37% of the total, granting them 230 seats in the Reichstag. The Nazi Party was now the largest and most powerful in Germany.

On August 5th, Hitler presented his list of demands to Schleicher – the chancellorship; passage of an enabling act giving him control to rule by decree; three cabinet posts for Nazis; the creation of a propaganda ministry; control over the Ministry of the Interior; and control of Prussia. As for Schleicher, he would get the Ministry of Defense as a reward.

Schleicher listened, didn't say yes or no, but would let him know later.

With gleeful anticipation, Hitler awaited Schleicher's response and even ordered that a memorial tablet be made to mark the place where the historic meeting with Schleicher had occurred.

Meanwhile, the SA began massing in Berlin anticipating a takeover of power. But old President Hindenburg soon put an end to Hitler's dreams. Hindenburg by now distrusted Hitler and would not have him as chancellor, especially after the behavior of the SA.

On August 13, Schleicher and Papen met with Hitler and gave him the bad news. The best they could offer was a compromise – vice chancellorship and the Prussian Ministry of the Interior.

A determined-looking Hermann Göring enters the Reichstag building in August 1932 - helping to stifle the democratic government for Hitler. Below: Hitler is cheered and saluted as he heads into a big meeting with President Hindenburg in November 1932.
Below: Hitler's car is mobbed by admirers after his meeting with Hindenburg on November 19th.

Hitler became hysterical. In a display of wild rage that stunned Schleicher and Papen, he spewed out threats of violence and murder, saying he would let loose the SA for three days of mayhem all across Germany.

Later that same day, Hitler was called on the carpet by President Hindenburg. The former Austrian Corporal got a tongue lashing from the former Field Marshal after once again demanding the chancellorship and refusing to cooperate with Papen and Schleicher.

In the presence of the steely-eyed old Prussian, Hitler backed down. The gamble for total victory had failed. He put the SA on a two week furlough and went to Berchtesgaden to lick his wounds. They would all have to wait, he told them. Just a little longer.

On September 12, the Reichstag under the new chairmanship of Hermann Göring gave a vote of no confidence to Papen and his government. But just before that vote was taken, Papen had slapped an order on Göring's desk dissolving the Reichstag and calling yet again for new elections.

This was a problem. Everyone was getting tired of elections by now. Goebbels had a hard time getting the Nazi effort up to the same level of a few months earlier.

In the middle of the campaign, Hitler's girlfriend Eva Braun shot herself in the neck during a suicide attempt. Hitler was still haunted by the suicide of his beloved niece a few years earlier. Eva Braun was deeply in love with Hitler but didn't get the attention she craved. Hitler rushed to the hospital and resolved to look after her from that moment on.

This distraction served to slow down the already sluggish Nazi campaign. More problems came after Goebbels and a number of Nazis went along with the Communists in a wildcat strike of transport workers in Berlin, thus alienating a lot of middle class voters.

Bad publicity from siding with the Reds plus the bad publicity Hitler got after his meeting with Hindenburg combined to lose them votes. Adding to all this were the wild antics of the SA. On November 6th, the Nazis lost two million votes and thirty four seats in the Reichstag. It seemed the Nazis were losing momentum. Hitler became depressed.

But there was still no workable government in Berlin. Papen's position as chancellor was badly weakened. And Schleicher was now at work behind the scenes to further undermine him. On November 17, Papen went to Hindenburg and told him he was unable to form any kind of working coalition, then resigned.

Two days later, Hitler requested a meeting with Hindenburg. Once again Hitler demanded to be made chancellor. Once again he was turned down. This time however, Hindenburg took a friendlier tone, asking Hitler, soldier to soldier, to meet him half way and cooperate with the other parties to form a working majority, in other words, a coalition government. Hitler said no.

On November 21st, Hitler saw Hindenburg again and tried a different approach. He read a prepared statement claiming that parliamentary government had failed and that only the Nazis could be counted on to stop the spread of Communism. He asked Hindenburg to make him the leader of a presidential cabinet. Hindenburg said no, and only repeated his own previous requests.

The Government of Germany had ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, a group of the country's most influential industrialists, bankers, and business leaders sent a petition to Hindenburg asking him to appoint Hitler as chancellor. They believed Hitler would be good for business.

Hindenburg was in a terrible bind. He called in Papen and Schleicher and asked them what to do. Papen came up with a wild idea. He would be chancellor again and rule only by decree, eliminate the Reichstag altogether, use the Army and police to suppress all political parties and forcibly amend the constitution. It would be a return to the days of Empire, with the conservative, aristocratic classes ruling.

Schleicher objected, much to Papen's surprise. Schleicher said that he, not Papen, should head the government and promised Hindenburg he could get a working majority in the Reichstag by causing a rift among the Nazis. Schleicher said he could get Gregor Strasser and as many as 60 Nazi deputies to break from Hitler.

Hindenburg was dumbfounded and finally turned to Papen and asked him to go ahead and form his government. After Hindenburg left the room, Papen and Schleicher got into a huge shouting match.

At a cabinet meeting the next day, Schleicher told Papen that any attempt by him to form a new government would bring the country to chaos. He insisted that the Army would not go along and then produced a Major Ott who backed up his claims. Schleicher had been at work behind the scenes to sway the Army to his point of view. Papen was in big trouble.

He went running to Hindenburg, who, with tears rolling down his cheeks, told Papen there was no alternative at this point except to name Schleicher as the new chancellor.

"My dear Papen, you will not think much of me if I change my mind. But I am too old and have been through too much to accept the responsibility for a civil war. Our only hope is to let Schleicher try his luck," President Hindenburg told Papen.

Thus Kurt von Schleicher became Chancellor of Germany on December 2, 1932. There now began an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes political intrigue and backstabbing that would put Hitler in power in only 57 days.

To begin with, Schleicher made good on his promise to try to split the Nazis. He held a secret meeting with Gregor Strasser, a Nazi who had been with Hitler from the start, and offered him the vice-chancellorship and control of Prussia.

To Strasser, the offer was quite appealing. The Nazi Party's recent decline, losing millions of votes and now experiencing terrible financial problems, seemed to indicate that Hitler's rigid tactics might not be the best thing for long-term success. Strasser had also acquired a distaste for the brutal men who now made up Hitler's inner circle.

Through Papen, Hitler found out what was going on. On December 5th, Strasser and his infuriated Führer met, along with other Nazi leaders, in a Berlin hotel. Strasser insisted that Hitler and the Nazis cooperate or at least tolerate the Schleicher government. Göring and Goebbels opposed him. Hitler sided with them against Strasser.

Two days later, Strasser and Hitler met again and wound up getting into a huge shouting match. Strasser accused Hitler of leading the Party to ruin. Hitler accused Strasser of stabbing him in the back.

The following day, Strasser wrote a letter to Hitler, resigning all of his duties as a member of the Nazi Party. Hitler and the Nazi leaders were stunned. One of the founding members and most influential leaders had abandoned them. The Nazi Party seemed to be unraveling. Hitler became depressed, even threatening to shoot himself with a pistol.

Strasser headed for a vacation in Italy.


"Whatever happens, mark what I say. From now on Germany is in the hands of an Austrian, who is a congenital liar (Hitler), a former officer who is a pervert (Röhm), and a clubfoot (Goebbels). And I tell you the last is the worst of them all. This is Satan in human form," declared Gregor Strasser in 1932.

As for Hermann Göring:

"Göring is a brutal egotist who cares nothing for Germany as long as he becomes something."

Regarding Strasser, Goebbels wrote in his diary: "Strasser is a dead man."

Hitler assigned his trusted aid, Rudolf Hess, to take over Strasser's duties. Over the Christmas season, Hitler became quite depressed over the failing fortunes of his Party.

And it seemed to many political observers that the danger of a Hitler dictatorship had passed.

But the new year brought new intrigue. The big bankers and industrialists who had petitioned Hindenburg on behalf of Hitler still liked the idea of Hitler in power. And Papen was now out to bring down Schleicher. On January 4, 1933, Hitler went to a meeting with Papen at the house of banker Kurt von Schroeder. Papen surprised Hitler by offering to oust Schleicher and install a Papen-Hitler government with himself and Hitler, both equal partners.

Hitler liked the idea of ousting Schleicher but insisted that he would have to be the real head of government. He would, however, be willing to work with Papen and his ministers. Papen gave in and agreed.

When Schleicher found out, he went running to Hindenburg, charging Papen with treachery. But Hindenburg had a soft spot for Papen and would not go along.

Schleicher's position was already badly weakened. He was unable to get the government moving because nobody trusted him enough to join him in a working coalition. The German government remained at a standstill with the people and Hindenburg getting more impatient by the day. Something had to be done. Hindenburg authorized Papen to continue negotiating with Hitler, but to keep it secret from Schleicher.

In the small German state of Lippe, local elections were scheduled for January 15. Hitler and the Nazis took this opportunity to make a big impression. They saturated the place with propaganda and campaigned heavily, hoping to win big and prove they had regained momentum.

They received a small increase in votes over their previous election total. But they used their own widely circulated Nazi newspapers to exaggerate the significance and to once again lay claim that Hitler and the Nazis were the wave of the future. It worked well and even impressed President Hindenburg.

On Sunday, January 22, 1933, a secret meeting was held at the home of Joachim von Ribbentrop. It was attended by Papen, Hindenburg's son Oskar, along with Hitler and Göring. Hitler grabbed Oskar and brought him into a private room and worked on him for an hour to convince him that the Nazis had to be taken into the government on his terms. Oskar emerged from the meeting convinced it was inevitable. The Nazis were to be taken in. Papen then pledged his loyalty to Hitler.

Next, Schleicher went to Hindenburg with a proposal – declare a state of emergency to control the Nazis, dissolve the Reichstag, and suspend elections. Hindenburg said no.

But word of this proposal leaked out, bringing Schleicher the wrath of the liberal and centrist parties. Schleicher then backed down, bringing him the wrath of anti-Nazi conservatives. His position was hopeless.

On January 28th, he went to Hindenburg and asked him once again to dissolve the Reichstag. Hindenburg said no. Schleicher resigned.

Papen and the president's son, Oskar, moved in on the Old Gentleman to convince him to appoint a Hitler-Papen government. Hindenburg was now a tired old man weary of all the intrigue. He seemed ready to give in. Hitler sensed his weakness and issued an additional demand that four important cabinet posts be given to Nazis.

This did not set well with the old man and he started having doubts about Hitler as chancellor. He was reassured when Hitler promised that Papen would get one of those four posts.

On the 29th, a false rumor circulated that Schleicher was about to arrest Hindenburg and stage a military takeover of the government. When Hindenburg heard of this, it ended his hesitation. He decided to appoint Adolf Hitler as the next Chancellor of Germany.

However, a last minute objection by conservative leader, Alfred Hugenberg, nearly ruined everything. On January 30, while President Hindenburg waited in the other room to give Hitler the chancellorship, Hugenberg held up everything by arguing with the Nazis over Hitler's demand for new elections. He was persuaded by Hitler to back down, or at least let Hindenburg decide. With that settled they all headed into the president's office.

Around noon on January 30, 1933, a new chapter in German history began as a teary-eyed Adolf Hitler emerged from the presidential palace as Chancellor of the German Nation. Surrounded by admirers, he got into his car and was driven down the street lined with cheering citizens.

"We've done it! We've done it!" a jubilant Adolf Hitler exclaimed.

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