Hitler Became A Dictator
By Jacob G. Hornberger
29 June, 2004
The Freedom Daily
U.S. officials wish to demonize someone, they inevitably compare him
to Adolf Hitler. The message immediately resonates with people because
everyone knows that Hitler was a brutal dictator.
But how many people
know how Hitler actually became a dictator? My bet is, very few. Id
also bet that more than a few people would be surprised at how he pulled
it off, especially given that after World War I Germany had become a
The story of how
Hitler became a dictator is set forth in The Rise and Fall of the Third
Reich, by William Shirer, on which this article is based.
In the presidential
election held on March 13, 1932, there were four candidates: the incumbent,
Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler, and two minor candidates,
Ernst Thaelmann and Theodore Duesterberg. The results were:
Hitler 30.1 percent
Thaelmann 13.2 percent
Duesterberg 6.8 percent
At the risk of belaboring
the obvious, almost 70 percent of the German people voted against Hitler,
causing his supporter Joseph Goebbels, who would later become Hitlers
minister of propaganda, to lament in his journal, Were beaten;
terrible outlook. Party circles badly depressed and dejected.
had not received a majority of the vote, however, a runoff election
had to be held among the top three vote-getters. On April 19, 1932,
the runoff results were:
Hitler 36.8 percent
Thaelmann 10.2 percent
Thus, even though Hitlers vote total had risen, he still had been
decisively rejected by the German people.
On June 1, 1932,
Hindenberg appointed Franz von Papen as chancellor of Germany, whom
Shirer described as an unexpected and ludicrous figure.
Papen immediately dissolved the Reichstag (the national congress) and
called for new elections, the third legislative election in five months.
Hitler and his fellow
members of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, who were determined
to bring down the republic and establish dictatorial rule in Germany,
did everything they could to create chaos in the streets, including
initiating political violence and murder. The situation got so bad that
martial law was proclaimed in Berlin.
Even though Hitler
had badly lost the presidential election, he was drawing ever-larger
crowds during the congressional election. As Shirer points out,
In one day, July
27, he spoke to 60,000 persons in Brandenburg, to nearly as many in
Potsdam, and that evening to 120,000 massed in the giant Grunewald Stadium
in Berlin while outside an additional 100,000 heard his voice by loudspeaker.
rise to power
The July 31, 1932, election produced a major victory for Hitlers
National Socialist Party. The party won 230 seats in the Reichstag,
making it Germanys largest political party, but it still fell
short of a majority in the 608-member body.
On the basis of
that victory, Hitler demanded that President Hindenburg appoint him
chancellor and place him in complete control of the state. Otto von
Meissner, who worked for Hindenburg, later testified at Nuremberg,
that because of the tense situation he could not in good conscience
risk transferring the power of government to a new party such as the
National Socialists, which did not command a majority and which was
intolerant, noisy and undisciplined.
in the Reichstag soon brought a new election, this one in November 6,
1932. In that election, the Nazis lost two million votes and 34 seats.
Thus, even though the National Socialist Party was still the largest
political party, it had clearly lost ground among the voters.
Attempting to remedy
the chaos and the deadlocks, Hindenburg fired Papen and appointed an
army general named Kurt von Schleicher as the new German chancellor.
Unable to secure a majority coalition in the Reichstag, however, Schleicher
finally tendered his resignation to Hindenburg, 57 days after he had
On January 10, 1933,
President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Although
the National Socialists never captured more than 37 percent of the national
vote, and even though they still held a minority of cabinet posts and
fewer than 50 percent of the seats in the Reichstag, Hitler and the
Nazis set out to to consolidate their power. With Hitler as chancellor,
that proved to be a fairly easy task.
The Reichstag fire
On February 27,
Hitler was enjoying supper at the Goebbels home when the telephone rang
with an emergency message: The Reichstag is on fire! Hitler
and Goebbels rushed to the fire, where they encountered Hermann Goering,
who would later become Hitlers air minister. Goering was shouting
at the top of his lungs,
This is the beginning
of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show
no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot, where he is found.
Every Communist deputy must this very day be strung up.
The day after the
fire, the Prussian government announced that it had found communist
museums, mansions and essential plants were to be burned down... . Women
and children were to be sent in front of terrorist groups.... The burning
of the Reichstag was to be the signal for a bloody insurrection and
civil war.... It has been ascertained that today was to have seen throughout
Germany terrorist acts against individual persons, against private property,
and against the life and limb of the peaceful population, and also the
beginning of general civil war.
So how was Goering
so certain that the fire had been set by communist terrorists? Arrested
on the spot was a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe. Most
historians now believe that van der Lubbe was actually duped by the
Nazis into setting the fire and probably was even assisted by them,
without his realizing it.
Why would Hitler
and his associates turn a blind eye to an impending terrorist attack
on their national congressional building or actually assist with such
a horrific deed? Because they knew what government officials have known
throughout history that during extreme national emergencies,
people are most scared and thus much more willing to surrender their
liberties in return for security. And thats exactly
what happened during the Reichstag terrorist crisis.
Suspending civil liberties
The day after the
fire, Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to issue a decree entitled,
For the Protection of the People and the State. Justified
as a defensive measure against Communist acts of violence endangering
the state, the decree suspended the constitutional guarantees
pertaining to civil liberties:
on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including
freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and
violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications;
and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as
restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits
Two weeks after
the Reichstag fire, Hitler requested the Reichstag to temporarily delegate
its powers to him so that he could adequately deal with the crisis.
Denouncing opponents to his request, Hitler shouted, Germany will
be free, but not through you! When the vote was taken, the result
was 441 for and 84 against, giving Hitler the two-thirds majority he
needed to suspend the German constitution. On March 23, 1933, what has
gone down in German history as the Enabling Act made Hitler
dictator of Germany, freed of all legislative and constitutional constraints.
The judiciary under Hitler
One of the most
dramatic consequences was in the judicial arena. Shirer points out,
Under the Weimar
Constitution judges were independent, subject only to the law, protected
from arbitrary removal and bound at least in theory by Article 109 to
safeguard equality before the law.
In fact, in the
Reichstag terrorist case, while the court convicted van der Lubbe of
the crime (who was executed), three other defendants, all communists,
were acquitted, which infuriated Hitler and Goering. Within a month,
the Nazis had transferred jurisdiction over treason cases from the Supreme
Court to a new Peoples Court, which, as Shirer points out,
soon became the
most dreaded tribunal in the land. It consisted of two professional
judges and five others chosen from among party officials, the S.S. and
the armed forces, thus giving the latter a majority vote. There was
no appeal from its decisions or sentences and usually its sessions were
held in camera. Occasionally, however, for propaganda purposes when
relatively light sentences were to be given, the foreign correspondents
were invited to attend.
One of the Reichstag
terrorist defendants, who had angered Goering during the trial with
a severe cross-examination of Goering, did not benefit from his acquittal.
The German communist
leader was immediately taken into protective custody, where
he remained until his death during the second war.
In addition to the
Peoples Court, which handled treason cases, the Nazis also set
up the Special Court, which handled cases of political crimes or insidious
attacks against the government.
invariably had to be trusted party members, without a jury. A Nazi prosecutor
had the choice of bringing action in such cases before either an ordinary
court or the Special Court, and invariably he chose the latter, for
obvious reasons. Defense lawyers before this court, as before the Volksgerichtshof,
had to be approved by Nazi officials. Sometimes even if they were approved
they fared badly. Thus the lawyers who attempted to represent the widow
of Dr. Klausener, the Catholic Action leader murdered in the Blood Purge,
in her suit for damages against the State were whisked off to Sachsenhausen
concentration camp, where they were kept until they formally withdrew
Even lenient treatment
by the Special Court was no guarantee for the defendant, however, as
Pastor Martin Niemoeller discovered when he was acquitted of major political
charges and sentenced to time served for minor charges. Leaving the
courtroom, Niemoeller was taken into custody by the Gestapo and taken
to a concentration camp.
The Nazis also implemented
a legal concept called Schultzhaft or protective custody
which enabled them to arrest and incarcerate people without charging
them with a crime. As Shirer put it,
did not protect a man from possible harm, as it did in more civilized
countries. It punished him by putting him behind barbed wire.
On August 2, 1934,
Hindenburg died, and the title of president was abolished. Hitlers
title became Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor. Not surprisingly, he used
the initial four-year temporary grant of emergency powers
that had been given to him by the Enabling Act to consolidate his omnipotent
control over the entire country.
Accepting the new order
Oddly enough, even
though his dictatorship very quickly became complete, Hitler returned
to the Reichstag every four years to renew the temporary
delegation of emergency powers that it had given him to deal with the
Reichstag-arson crisis. Needless to say, the Reichstag rubber-stamped
each of his requests.
For their part,
the German people quickly accepted the new order of things. Keep in
mind that the average non-Jewish German was pretty much unaffected by
the new laws and decrees. As long as a German citizen kept his head
down, worked hard, took care of his family, sent his children to the
public schools and the Hitler Youth organization, and, most important,
didnt involve himself in political dissent against the government,
a visit by the Gestapo was very unlikely.
Keep in mind also
that, while the Nazis established concentration camps in the 1930s,
the number of inmates ranged in the thousands. It wouldnt be until
the 1940s that the death camps and the gas chambers that killed millions
would be implemented. Describing how the average German adapted to the
new order, Shirer writes,
majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom
had been taken away, that so much of culture had been destroyed and
replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had
become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people
accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation.... The
Nazi terror in the early years affected the lives of relatively few
Germans and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised to see that
the people of this country did not seem to feel that they were being
cowed.... On the contrary, they supported it with genuine enthusiasm.
Somehow it imbued them with a new hope and a new confidence and an astonishing
faith in the future of their country.
Jacob Hornberger is
founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. Send him
This article originally
appeared in the March 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.
© The Future of Freedom Foundation