Auschwitz liberation day post: did Germans ever “democratically” elect Hitler?

On January 27, 1945, the advancing Red Army reached the concentration camp complex outside the Polish town of Oswiecim [German name: Auschwitz]. The remaining inmates were mostly those too sick or infirm to be sent on death marches toward camps inside the shrinking Reich.

This is as good a chance as any to discuss a question I get asked regularly: did the National Socialist German Workers Party of Adolf Hitler [y”sh] ever win an election fair and square? And if not, why were they put in power?

Let us look at the July 1932 general elections, which took place in an atmosphere of chaos and street violence, as well as deep economic depression. There were 608 seats in the Reichstag — of which a majority of 319 seats to two competing anti-democratic parties.

230 NSDAP (“the Nazis”)

89 KPD (Communist Party of Germany), at the time openly Stalinist

So all the democratic parties combined could not even muster a majority. They consisted of many parties, which can be grouped into a few blocs.

133 SPD (Social Democrats)

97 “Catholic bloc”, of which

Zentrumpartei 75

BVP (Bavarian People’s Party) 22 [cf. today’s CSU, Bavarian sister party of the CDU]

3 Christian Social People’s Service (Protestant)

37 DNVP (German National People’s Party), national-conservatives

12 Liberals and national-liberals, of which

DVP (German People’s Party) 7

DSP (German State Party) 4

VRP (People’s Rights Party) 1

5 Farmers’ Parties (German Peasants Party 2, Agricultural League 2, German Countryside People 1)

2 Miscellaneous (Reich Middle Class 2, anti-inflation list 1)

The election of November 1932, now with only 585 seats, actually saw the NSDAP lose 34 seats (while the Communists gained 11). Still, out of now 585 seats, the two competing anti-democratic parties again accounted for the majority of the seats (296 this time).


100 KPD (Communists)

121 SPD (Social Democrats)

90 Catholic parties, split 70-20

5 CSVP (Protestant)

51 DNVP (national conservatives)

13 Liberals and national-liberals

6 Farmers’ Parties

1 Regional party (“German-Hanoverian League”)

Chancellor Franz von Papen (a diplomat turned Center Party politician) thus for two elections in a row was unable to muster a majority in the Reichstag. President Paul von Hindenburg [yes, the one after whom the airship is named] dismissed him and appointed his defense minister instead, General Kurt von Schleicher.

Schleicher set about negotiating with Gregor Strasser, leader of the NSDAP’s left faction, in an apparent attempt to split them off as a separate party or at least an independent faction, which then could join the government in what Schleicher called a ‘Querfront’ (freely: cross-front, front across the divide). [*] In the meantime he started a massive public works program involving 2 million workser (for which Hitler would later wrongly be credited). His relations with the ministers in his cabinet (all holdovers from Papen) were quite poor.[**]

Papen then sold Hindenburg on an NSDAP-led coalition, claiming that the DNVP and the Center Party would together be able to keep the National Socialists in check. We all know how that turned out — especially after the Reichstag Fire gave Hitler the pretext to seek plenipotentiary powers through the Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act).

Even then, during the March 1933 rigged election (the last election until the fall of the Third Reich), the best the NSDAP could do was 288 seats out of 647. Four months later, the Enabling Act left only the NSDAP standing — all other parties having been banned, intimidated out of existence, or forcibly amalgamated into the NSDAP.

Papen, “the Ephialtes of the Center Party” as party leader Mgr. Ludwig Kaas referred to him, would come to rue his actions — but when he tried to turn the tide in 1934 (cf. his Marburg Speech), it was well past midnight.

Papen was acquitted at Nuremberg, largely because he had no power or influence after 1934 and had just served as ambassador first to Vienna, then to Ankara. Yet without his “help”, it is possible that Schleicher would have been able to keep Hitler out of power, and hence Papen can be held indirectly responsible for the Third Reich — even though he likely could not foresee in his worst nightmares what that would turn out to be…

[*] The term is today sometimes used for attempts to create tactical alliances between radical-left and radical-right groups, tied together by common hatred for democracy, capitalism, and often “The Juice”.

[**] Interestingly, given the title of this blog: Schleicher’s chief of staff was one Erwin Planck (1893-1945), son of the great physicist Max Planck. Erwin would later be sentenced to death by the infamous People’s Courts for his involvement in the anti-Hitler conspiracy: he participated in drafting a post-Hitler constitution as well as in the preparations for Operation Valkyrie.

Schleicher himself had been assassinated by the SS eleven years earlier, as part of the Night of the Long Knives.

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