On this day in 1933 Europe took its first step towards the abyss when a young Austrian called Hitler became Chancellor of the new republic of Germany. Within a month he would have dictatorial powers and democracy would be dead, and a year after that he would combine the roles of President and Chancellor into a new one – Fuhrer. But how did this happen in Germany, a modern country which had enjoyed fourteen years of true democracy?
Historians have debated over this question for decades, but certain key factors are unavoidable. The first was economic struggle. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had devastated the German economy, which had just started to boom following the years of chaos after World War 1. As a result, the early 1930s had been a time of immense hardship for Germany’s large population, which had known little else since 1918. Their anger is easy to understand. Before World War 1, under the autocratic Imperial rule of Kaiser Wilhelm, Germany had been on the path towards becoming a true world power, and had lead the way militarily as well as in the sciences and industry. Now it was a shadow of its former self, humiliated disarmed and crippled by the harsh terms that had followed their defeat in the Great War.
As a result, it was hardly surprising that many Germans associated hard rule with success, and democracy with their recent struggles. The Kaiser had abdicated following the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, and therefore the middle-class politicians who had signed it got most of the German people’s anger. Hitler had spent his entire career in politics so far promising to throw down the Republic and the Treaty, and was loud in blaming the middle-class politicians and economically successful German Jewish population for what was going on. His popularity grew rapidly after the Wall Street Crash, and his Nazi Party had gone from nowhere to the biggest German party in the Reichstag elections of 1932.
As a result, President Hindenburg, a popular but now aged hero of World War 1, had little choice but to appoint Hitler in January 1933, after all his other attempts to form a government had collapsed. Hindenburg despised the Austrian, who had never gained a rank higher than Corporal during the war, and apparently refused to look at him as he signed him in as Chancellor. When Hitler then appeared on the Reichstag balcony, he was greeted with a storm of Nazi salutes and cheering, in a ceremony carefully organised by his propaganda specialist Goebbels. Nothing like this had ever been seen in German politics before, even under the Kaiser, and many liberal Germans were already greatly concerned. But the genie had been let out of the bottle.
Shortly afterwards, General Ludendorff, another World War 1 veteran who had once been in league with Hitler, sent a telegram to his old comrade Hindenburg. It read “By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action.”