After the Night of the Long Knives, nothing stood
between Hitler and absolute power in Germany, except 87-year-old German
President Paul von Hindenburg, who now lay close to death at his country
estate in East Prussia.
For Hitler, Hindenburg's demise couldn't have
come at a better time. He had just broken the back of the rowdy Brownshirts
and cemented the support of the Army's General Staff. Now he just needed
to resolve the issue of who would succeed Hindenburg as president.
Hitler, of course, decided that he should succeed
Hindenburg, but not as president, instead as Führer (supreme leader)
of the German people. Although he was already called Führer by members
of the Nazi Party and popularly by the German public, Hitler's actual government
title at this time was simply Reich Chancellor of Germany.
However, there were still a handful of influential
old-time conservatives in Germany who hoped for a return of the monarchy
or perhaps some kind of non-Nazi nationalist government after Hindenburg's
death. Although they loathed democracy, they also loathed the excesses
of the Hitler regime. These were proud men from the 1800s reared in the
days of princes and kings and ancient honor codes. And they knew their
beloved Fatherland was now in the hands of murderous fanatics such as Himmler
and Heydrich who cared nothing about their old-fashioned notions.
Among those conservatives was Franz von Papen,
Germany's Vice Chancellor, who was a confidant of President Hindenburg.
Just before the Night of the Long Knives, Hindenburg had told him concerning
the Nazis: "Papen, things are going badly. See what you can do."
But Papen had been unable to do anything except to barely escape with his
Papen, however, had one last trick up his sleeve.
Back in April 1934 he almost convinced Hindenburg to declare in his will
that Germany should return to a constitutional monarchy upon his death.
Hindenburg at first agreed to put it in his will, but then changed his
mind and put it in the form of a personal letter to Hitler, to be delivered
after his death.
However, for Hitler and his followers, the idea
of returning to a monarchy at this point was utterly laughable. Hitler
had the Nazi Reichstag (Legislature) completely in his pocket and simply
exercised his power to prevent any such thing from happening. He
had a law drafted abolishing the office of president and proclaiming himself
About 9 a.m. on August 2, 1934, the much anticipated
death of President Hindenburg finally occurred. Within hours, the Nazi
Reichstag announced the following law, back-dated to August 1st:
The Reich Government has enacted the following
law which is hereby promulgated.
Section 1. The office of Reich President will be combined with that
of Reich Chancellor. The existing authority of the Reich President will
consequently be transferred to the Führer and Reich Chancellor, Adolf
Hitler. He will select his deputy.
Section 2. This law is effective as of the time of the death of
Reich President von Hindenburg.
The law was technically illegal since it violated
provisions of the German constitution concerning presidential succession
as well as the Enabling Act of 1933 which forbade Hitler from altering
the presidency. But that didn't matter much anymore. Nobody raised any
objections. Hitler himself was becoming the law.
Immediately following the announcement of the
new Führer law, the German Officer Corps and every individual soldier
in the German Army was made to swear a brand new oath of allegiance:
"I swear by God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience
to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, Supreme
Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to
risk my life at any time for this oath."
The unprecedented oath was to Hitler personally, not the German state
or constitution, as were previous Army oaths. Obedience
to Hitler would now be regarded as a sacred duty by all men in uniform,
in accordance with their military code of honor, thus making the German
Army the personal instrument of the Führer.
On August 7th, during Hindenburg's elaborate State
funeral, General Werner von Blomberg, caught up in the pomp and circumstance
of the moment, offered to have the Army officially refer to Hitler as "Mein
Führer" instead of the customary "Herr Hitler." Hitler
immediately accepted Blomberg's offer.
After the funeral, the Nazis prepared to hold a nationwide
vote (plebiscite) giving the German people
an opportunity to express their approval of the Führer's new powers
and thus legitimize Hitler's position in the eyes of the world.
Meanwhile, Hindenburg's last will and testament
surfaced, delivered by Papen to Hitler. Among the documents was the letter
from Hindenburg to Hitler suggesting a return of the Kaiser's (Hohenzollern)
monarchy. Hitler ignored this message and likely destroyed the letter,
as it was not published, and has never been found. The contents were only
made known after the war by Papen.
The Nazis did publish Hindenburg's alleged political
testament giving an account of his years of service to the Fatherland and
containing complimentary references to Hitler. The testament probably was
a Nazi forgery and was skillfully used as part of the intensive propaganda
campaign to get a big 'Yes' vote for Hitler in the coming plebiscite.
On August 19, about 95 percent of registered voters
in Germany went to the polls and gave Hitler 38 million "Ja"
votes (90 percent of the vote). Thus Hitler could now claim he was Führer
of the German nation with the overwhelming approval of the people.
The next day, August 20, mandatory loyalty oaths
for all public officials in Germany were introduced:
"I swear: I shall be loyal and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Führer
of the German Reich and people, respect the laws, and fulfill my official
duties conscientiously, so help me God."
Hitler, at long last, had achieved total power in Germany.
Two weeks later, during the annual Nazi rally at Nuremberg, the Führer's
grand proclamation was read: "The German form of life is definitely
determined for the next thousand years. The Age of Nerves of the nineteenth
century has found its close with us. There will be no revolution in Germany
for the next thousand years."
Before the rally, Hitler had summoned an up-and-coming movie director
named Leni Riefenstahl and asked her to film the entire week-long event.
Her film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally bore the title personally chosen by
Hitler, "Triumph of the Will," and became one of the most powerful
propaganda statements ever made.