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Hitler's First Hundred Days
When Germans Embraced the Third Reich
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Quarter Past Eleven, One Hundred Days, a Thousand Years
THE POCKET WATCH told the time: It was shortly before eleven o’clock in the morning on Monday, January 30, 1933. The most powerful men in German politics had gathered in the first-floor office of Otto Meissner, chief of staff to the president of the republic, Paul von Hindenburg, who occupied the second-floor suite. They met in the Chancellery Building in Berlin, where Hindenburg and Meissner had temporary offices while the Presidential Palace underwent repairs. The men in the room were determined: they would destroy the republic and establish a dictatorship powerful enough to bend back the influence of political parties and break the socialists.
The men were powerful for different reasons. Chief negotiator Franz Joseph Hermann Michael Maria von Papen, the nation’s unpopular chancellor from June to December 1932, had standing among conservative, antirepublican elites and clout because of his friendship with President Hindenburg. A contemporary described the fifty-four-year-old Westphalian Catholic as an antiquated caricature: “a figure from Alice in Wonderland” perfectly cast with “long-legged stiffness, haughtiness, and bleating arrogance.”1 Press tycoon Alfred Hugenberg was powerful because he led the right-wing German National People’s Party, which had lost most of its voters over the years but remained crucial to any plan for a nationalist unity government. His enemies considered him a “hamster”; even his friends remarked on the sixty-seven-year-old’s lack of “political sex appeal.”2 And forty-three-year-old Adolf Hitler, a veteran of World War I and the postwar political struggles but otherwise without experience in government, was powerful because he was the indisputable leader of the nation’s largest party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, a violent, populist movement with an energized following that had swept with terrific force onto the political scene. To many observers, the man was a cipher. The satirist Karl Kraus remarked, “Hitler brings nothing to my mind.” Hitler “doesn’t exist,” said another funny man; “he is only the noise he makes.” True, Hitler was very loud, but people listened to him.3 Other men were present in the room, including current cabinet ministers who had agreed to join the new government that Hitler would lead, but these three were in charge.
Not at the meeting were the leaders of the Catholic Center Party, which was as it sounded—Catholic and centrist—though it leaned more to the right than the left. Also missing were representatives of the Social Democratic Party, Germany’s oldest (and, until 1932, largest) party and the most reliable pillar of German democracy, and the Communists, who, like the National Socialists, had gained votes by furiously attacking the “system” in the embittered years of the Great Depression. Together, the absent politicians represented more Germans than the conspiratorial men in the room, but they shared little if any common ground. There was no such thing as majority opinion in the country: not enough Germans supported Hitler, not enough supported the republic, and not enough supported the old-fashioned conservatives. Almost no one supported the old kaiser in exile. After all the electioneering of the previous year, the political system had checkmated itself.
Since July 1932, the two radical parties—the National Socialists, or Nazis (German acronyms usually incorporate syllables rather than letters), and the Communists, or the “Commune”—had composed a slim negative majority in the Reichstag. Given this, the other parties might have been expected to form a coalition to protect the constitution and preserve law and order. But German politics didn’t work that way. To understand how they did work, one must first understand the political divide that made even moderate Social Democrats unacceptable partners to the right-of-center groups. The inability of Right and Left to communicate—divided as they were on the issue of the November Revolution of 1918, which established the democratic Weimar Republic, and the “stab-in-the-back” legend, which blamed the revolutionaries for Germany’s defeat in World War I—disabled every level of government. The Right derided the new national flag, which replaced the imperial colors of black, red, and white, as a despicable mix of black, red, and “mustard.” It dismissed volunteers in the republican civil guard, the Reichsbanner, as “Reich bananas” or “Reich bandits.” The German Right’s hatred and dread of the Left drove the plot against the republic and pushed these plotters into the arms of the Nazis.
Yet those gathered in the Chancellery Building had reached no agreement on the best political plan. It was now past eleven o’clock, when Hitler and Papen were scheduled to present the new cabinet to President Hindenburg. Hitler, hoping to attain a Nazi-dominated supermajority in the Reichstag in order to revise or suspend the constitution, pressed Hugenberg to endorse the proposal for one last round of elections. As the leader of a relatively small party without modern campaign machinery, Hugenberg refused, at the last minute jeopardizing the plan. Hindenburg was expecting them upstairs.
The assembled men felt a real sense of urgency. In the past week, three big demonstrations had crowded downtown streets in the capital: Nazi storm troopers (Sturmabteilung, or SA) on January 22 (shouting, “Germany, Wake Up!”), Communists on January 25 (“Red Front!”), and Social Democrats on January 29 (“Freedom!”). The negotiations to put Hitler in the number one spot, as chancellor, had been difficult. And most of the men in the room had heard rumors that the army command was unhappy, although no one was sure whether the Reichswehr opposed the return of Papen to that post—which journalists thought the likely but highly unfortunate solution to the present crisis—or intended to block the last-chance gamble on the people’s demagogue, Hitler, whose brown-shirted storm troopers vastly outnumbered the government’s regular soldiers. Maybe the army wouldn’t move at all. In consultations, Hitler quickly promised not to use future election results to rearrange the composition of the new cabinet, in which Hugenberg and his allies occupied powerful positions. From the perspective of Hugenberg, who suspected that any plan calling for the dissolution of the Reichstag and new elections would strengthen the National Socialists and ultimately result in legislation overriding the constitution and giving the Nazi leader emergency powers, Hitler’s pledge was beside the point.
The issue of elections was important. The decision would determine the division of power in the room that morning and the hardness of the envisioned dictatorship. Without new elections, the leaders of the nationalist unity government would rule by emergency decree, which required the consent of the president. The new autocrats would bypass the Reichstag, ignore its negative majorities, and push aside the democratic opposition. Such a solution would be frankly authoritarian, but it would leave power divided between the chancellor and the president and preserve the political influence of the various right-wing partners represented in the cabinet. Government structures would remain in place. This was the “illegal” path to a “partial” authoritarian state supported by Hugenberg and his German Nationalists as well as Germany’s military, business, and civil service elites. As establishment figures, Hugenberg and Papen would serve as guarantors. With new elections, on the other hand, Hitler would pursue a “legal” though much more adventurous path. By cementing a coalition with Hugenberg, Hitler planned to lead the national unity government to an electoral victory, making the new Nazi majority powerful enough to revise the constitution and put emergency powers in his own hands. The “legal” path would lead to a “total” authoritarian solution that would allow the Nazis to dismantle the power of the presidency and consolidate the party’s power, all without any constraint on arbitrary rule or revolutionary ambition. Hugenberg was the lone holdout against Hitler’s proposal.
The men still had reached no agreement when Meissner entered the room, watch in hand. He pointed out that it was quarter past eleven. The eighty-four-year-old Hindenburg, whose face, “cut out of rock,” was without “a flicker of imagination or light or humor,” could be kept waiting no longer.4 The odd man out, Hugenberg, at the last moment, agreed to new elections. The conspirators walked up the stairs to Hindenburg’s office, and at eleven thirty the president administered the oath of office to Adolf Hitler, who became Germany’s new chancellor.
This was the moment the Nazis had been waiting for. They intended to use the forthcoming election campaign to win the battle on the streets, eradicate the socialist opposition, and install their “Führer” as dictator of a one-party state. That the men in the room got to the second floor in basic agreement led to the greatest man-made disaster in twentieth-century history: the rise of Hitler, the establishment of the Third Reich, and the Nazis’ war on the world.
Yet, at a quarter past eleven, on one of the last days of the first month of 1933, events still could have transpired very differently. Hugenberg could have stuck to his position. Hindenburg could have remained faithful to his long-standing refusal to appoint Hitler chancellor without a Reichstag majority. This path, which most republicans and big-city newspapers editors expected the president to follow, would have left German politics in January 1933 muddled but kept Hitler outside the gates of power.
There was nothing inevitable about Hitler’s appointment on January 30, 1933, or self-evident about Germany’s Nazi future. There was no crowd at the Brandenburg Gate or march on Berlin to push the National Socialists into power. The National Socialists were not riding a wave of newfound popularity; indeed, in the last big elections, in November 1932, they had lost votes. If the public desired anything, it was a political truce, which many saw as the prerequisite for economic recovery. When the transfer happened that morning, those present in the second-floor suite had detected no decisive shift in the national mood that suddenly worked in Hitler’s favor. Although the Nazis were the largest party, Germany remained extremely fractured: cleavages divided those loyal to the republic and those who hated the “system,” divided Protestants and Catholics, divided Germans who had a job or a business and those who had neither. All these conflicts cut across the almost unbridgeable political divide that separated neighbors who stood with the socialist Left from those who aligned with the nationalist Right.
There could only even be a “quarter past eleven” because the divisions in the country had created political paralysis, a stranglehold that concentrated power in the hands of a very few men around President Hindenburg. Hitler could seize power only by working with them. In the last half of 1932, everything hinged on the actions of the president. Hindenburg had the power to sign emergency decrees and bypass parliament, and this empowered his aides and counselors: his son, Oskar; Chief of Staff Meissner; former chancellor Papen; and current chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, an unpredictable, not entirely unsympathetic figure whose power base was the army. History only remembers the clock ticking in Meissner’s hand on Monday morning because the National Socialists had been unable to win an absolute majority in any of the four big elections held in 1932. Nonetheless, as the largest party, Hitler’s National Socialists were indispensable to the plot. Papen succeeded in bringing everyone together on January 30. In order to smash the Weimar Republic, the men in the room needed the Nazis, and to lever themselves into power, the Nazis needed the men in the room.
The last round of elections had shown that the National Socialists were no longer able to win over large numbers of new voters; they believed violence was the only available avenue if they were to attain and remain in power. Hitler and Hugenberg talked about purges, bans, and arrests to smash the socialist and republican opposition. The idea that they would punch hard was understood. Violence was built into the “legal” path since the Enabling Act to suspend the constitution in March 1933 raised the stakes to total power—Hitler’s alone. The route from the drama in the Reich Chancellery Building to the horror of concentration camps such as Dachau in one hundred days was short and direct.
Quarter past eleven also tells the time of decision. Hitler’s appointment released enormous energy; it pivoted many people down a path they were willing to travel to escape endless political conflict and economic hardship. Better “an end with horror” than “horror without end,” asserted one Nazi leader, although he could not imagine that later Germans would repeat the same phrase to signal their acceptance of a harsh defeat at the hands of the Allies at the end of the war.5 Hindenburg, the old field marshal, had long opposed the appointment of Hitler, a demobilized corporal, to the chancellorship. Yet, once he had agreed, the Reichspräsident put the tortuous parliamentary conflicts of the past behind him; he had “jumped over the last hurdle and now has his peace.”6 Millions of Germans felt they had done the same. The trouble of the present gave way to a future in springtime—and the Nazis described their new regime in, literally, sunny terms to both create and exploit this optimism. The national mood did change and swung in Hitler’s favor—at first only perceptibly, in February, then decisively, after the elections of March 5, 1933.
More Germans were for Hitler than for any other thing in January 1933. And holdouts largely came around to him once he had become chancellor. Cascades of cheers accompanied the new dictatorship, testifying to its genuine popularity. As the clock ticked on after a quarter past eleven in the following days and weeks, the National Socialists who stood behind Hitler swept into real power through unprecedented violence against their enemies and newfound enthusiasm among cheering friends. A split-second decision had consolidated one of the most popular and wicked dictatorships in modern history with startling speed. A quarter past eleven led, in only one hundred days, to the Thousand-Year Reich.
The “crowding events of the hundred days,” as Franklin Roosevelt said around the same time to describe the early accomplishments of his presidency in 1933, completely redirected Germany’s national destiny by “crowding” out opponents and closing off alternatives. In just one hundred days, political actors rediscovered the power of collective action; the marching in 1933 would lead to war in 1939. The new regime was borne of coercion—but also of consent, even though the line between these two was as difficult to discern then as it is today. The story of Hitler’s first hundred days is also about deferral and irresolution; no one knew for certain the depth of conversion, or the extent of mere appearance, or the effect of terror. The legitimacy of the Third Reich rested on a potent combination of genuine enthusiasm and doubt, the fact that no one quite knew who was a true Nazi believer and who was not.
COUNTING one hundred days out from January 30 takes us to May 9. The Nazis had won the elections and passed the Enabling Act to suspend the constitution, appointed Reich commissars to take over the separate federal states—Prussia, Bavaria, Hamburg, and so on—and seized the operations of local government to assume complete political control. They had dismantled the trade unions, coordinated many of the institutions of civic life, and promulgated laws denying German Jews equal rights as citizens. They had mustered their “gangsters,” as the British ambassador referred to Nazi paramilitaries, in the police force. Not only had the National Socialists destroyed their Communist and Social Democratic opponents, but many former Marxists had wandered into the Nazi ranks—even participating in ritualized burnings of their red flags on the market square and singing the “Horst Wessel Song,” the Nazi anthem.7 On the 101st day Nazi student organizations burned antipatriotic books in what Time magazine referred to as a “Bibliocaust” and Newsweek subheaded a “Holocaust.”8 Since supercharged university students lit the fires, the one hundred days revealed the calibration of the new era as much from below as from above. The fires in the immediate aftermath of the hundred days kindled the wildfires of persecution, war, and genocide.
In a few short weeks, once-firm ideological affiliations—Left versus Right, Catholic versus Protestant—no longer structured political thinking. It was Nazis versus non-Nazis. And the Nazis had seemingly established sturdy foundations for a fierce new national community, the Third, or Thousand-Year, Reich.
Everything changed, but how much?
Quarter past eleven tells us when—but little else. It does not tell us why the men were in the room or who the Nazis were or why they were so powerful. Nor does it explain the timing. Why the sense of urgency to make a decision on January 30, 1933? And why the apparent sudden shift in national mood in favor of the Nazis in the one hundred days that followed? To begin to answer these questions we must step back in time, first to the crisis of the Great Depression and then further back to the end of World War I and the November Revolution that established the Weimar Republic in 1918.
The enormous financial outlays by all the belligerents in World War I (1914–1918) upended the economic order. Extensive debt, inflationary pressures, overproduction, and unemployment after demobilization engendered a postwar decade hobbled by recession and currency devaluation. The late 1920s finally saw a measure of stability, but then came another crisis. The Great Depression, initiated at the end of 1929 with a sharp downturn in public stock valuation and thus private investment in the United States, the world’s leading creditor, accelerated into a global crisis as international trade collapsed, factories closed, and a monetary liquidity crisis threatened banking operations. Government austerity measures aggravated rather than alleviated the situation.
The depression hit Germany, an industrial country heavily dependent on exports, particularly hard. Every winter pushed more workers into unemployment lines, and summer could not sweep enough back into temporary jobs in factories and construction sites. Between 1929 and 1932, one in three Germans lost their livelihoods. At the same time, young people had no prospect of entering the labor force. Given mechanization, international competition, and economies of scale, German farmers suffered terribly as commodity prices slumped.
What had been, first and foremost, a crisis of the “little man”—workers, artisans, and farmers—expanded to jeopardize the more prosperous middle classes in 1931, when unmet obligations and devalued investments caused banks to fail, which in turn prompted austerity measures limiting access to savings and cutting salaries and social entitlements. Germany’s Depression-era leader, the Catholic politician Heinrich Brüning, a severe man and a veteran of the war, became reviled as the “Hunger Chancellor.”
Compounding the economic crisis were political divisions familiar to other European countries but far deeper in Germany because of Weimar’s revolutionary origins. Not only did fiscal conservatives square off against trade union representatives, but nationalists, who remained largely fixed to the ways and means of the prewar world, battled socialists, who were determined to engineer a new, postwar one. Even on the local level, Germans associated with their own social, religious, and economic sets. Neighbors rarely crossed the ideological divide that separated socialist workers from nationalist burghers. A visitor to towns across Germany found two football clubs (one red, one black), two nature societies, two sets of choral and singing societies, and, on occasion, two voluntary fire companies (one for uptown, the other for downtown). Although confounded by the severity of economic problems, politicians also followed their own partisan interests and failed to forge parliamentary alliances as the crisis deepened.
One critic expressed his dismay at the absence of a way out: “whether the question is reparations or disarmament, the planned economy or federal reform, the parliamentary system or French-German relations, everywhere the same picture appears—a field of rubble.” The end of the war obviously had not halted the destruction on the ground. “We have undertaken all possible experiments,” he explained in 1931; we “have consoled ourselves and let ourselves be consoled, we have tried all methods without believing in any particular one. Now general misery chokes us at the throat. The past years have left nothing behind but a single new word for the unprecedented hardship, an eerie one: contraction.”9 Miserable, choking contraction, with no solution or end in sight: a state of siege constituted the state of affairs. People felt imprisoned in times that could not continue but somehow did. Commentators wrote books on crisis and sought its origins in moral laxity, religious indifference, and political radicalization. Die Krise became a state of mind. Receiving a few marks as “crisis support,” unemployed men and women fumbled the currency of despair in the pockets of their patched-up clothes.
Graphs mapped the crisis with a line that showed unemployment climbing from the bottom left corner to the top right, a line paralleled almost exactly by the growing numbers of Communist and Nazi voters. But the equation of hard times with radical votes is too simplistic. Circumstances in the wake of the 1929 crash did not create the economic and political pressure on their own; events in Germany in 1918 and 1914 had also shaped it.
Crisis talk about the Great Depression always incorporated debates about the “August Days” of 1914, which Germans remembered as a moment of great national unity at the outset of World War I, and about the 1918 November Revolution, which brought down the Kaiserreich and established the Weimar Republic. In some ways, the three dates compounded the sense of hopelessness because each illustrated what Germany had lost. Strung together, they plotted a trajectory of deterioration and decay and engendered a narrative of decline “concocted precisely by those who wanted to replace a democratic with an authoritarian system” under the sign of emergency.10 Many Germans held fast to the olden days. Surprised when Hindenburg won the election for the presidency in 1925, observers surmised that voters really hankered for a substitute, or ersatz, kaiser. The most popular movie in the postwar years was not a Weimar classic like Metropolis or M but Fridericus Rex (1922–1923), a portrayal of the tumultuous life of the eighteenth-century Prussian king Frederick the Great. Film audiences flocked to features set in romantic, timeless settings: “the Rhine and Neckar rivers flow through Berlin’s cinemas as if it could not be otherwise,” complained the novelist Erich Kästner in 1927. “Couples hold their hands in the dark and borrow each other’s handkerchiefs and shed a tear.”11
Yet August 1914 and November 1918 also radically transformed the ways in which Germans imagined the nation. Both events had legitimized the people as the proper subject of political action, while delegitimizing the kaiser, class-based suffrage systems, and the pretensions of social elites. Between the experience of the August Days and the November Revolution, the future seemed to be Germany’s. Indeed, a “dance craze”—new moves, not old routines—marked the end of the war. “Berlin has never experienced such a New Year’s Eve,” commented the Berliner Tageblatt after city officials lifted the wartime ban on public dancing at the end of 1918; “everywhere, here, there, and over there, on the northside, on the westside, on the southside, and in the suburbs, New Year’s Eve balls.” Weimar produced novelty nonstop: the international style of metropolitan architecture, fashionable bobbed haircuts, live radio broadcasts, and the weekend excitement of airplane rallies and zeppelin flyovers. Illustrated magazines and mass-circulation newspapers beamed back the images of das neue Leben (new life) and die neue Zeit (new times). “The new life forms are entirely independent of party affiliations,” affirmed Eugen Diesel, son of the engineer, in 1931. “A lifestyle emerges from the spirit of technology to which we are all beholden, whether Communist or National Socialist.”12
At first, the open spaces of the postwar years favored Germany’s new democracy. In 1919, three-quarters of all Germans voted for the pro-republican Weimar Coalition made up of the Social Democratic Party, the Catholic Center Party, and the German Democratic Party. In an unacknowledged legacy of the revolution, political contenders of all types entered the public square. Their commemorations, assemblies, and marches attested to the energetic struggle to appropriate the future. Stepping out, the demonstrators, often in uniform, mirrored each formally; yet they deepened divisions between those who upheld the republic and those who rejected it and between radicals such as the Communists who dreamed of a “Soviet Germany” and the nationalists who looked to build a new German Reich.
For all these contenders, crisis represented jeopardy—but only in the first moment: It also presented opportunity, a break in the system that was also a break from Germany’s painful past. Germans would no longer be at the mercy of history (although that is precisely where they found themselves twelve years later, in 1945). In this sense, crisis was synonymous with refusal, forecast, and future. Other European powers were divided between Left and Right—victorious France, for example, just across the Rhine. But France’s citizens obsessed more about slow growth, old age, and feelings of constraint. Germany was a startling place in the years after the Great War in that political conflicts expressed themselves in the future tense and borrowed the rhetoric and choreography of rebellion and revolution.
In the end, antirepublican forces were the chief beneficiaries of action on the streets. The voices of refusal grew louder, and in little more than ten years, the republican majority had been cut in half. Nationalists instrumentalized the fear of Bolshevism—the Soviet Union loomed over Europe after the war—to smear both local Communists and moderate Social Democrats, claiming that members of these groups had stocked an insurrectionary home front, betrayed upstanding soldiers on the front lines, and manufactured Germany’s defeat. (In point of fact mutinous soldiers more often accosted bewildered civilians with ideas of revolution.) Opposition to the Treaty of Versailles, at first a rare point of unity among Germans, ended up completely defining enemies of the republic. And the Weimar Republic itself, modern in appearance and progressive in its social policy, was criminalized as an oppressive, untrustworthy “system” or, once hard times had cheapened its promises, dismissed as a transient phenomenon not suited to Germany’s destiny.
- "Elegant and sobering"—New York Times
- "Masterly...While Hitler's First Hundred Days is laden with lessons for contemporary political observers (let alone students of any era of modern political history), Fritzsche is not a prisoner of the moment. He has instead made a substantial contribution to the historical scholarship on Nazi Germany."—New Criterion
- "Perceptive."—Wall Street Journal
- "A brilliant, quietly horrifying new anatomy of precisely how Germany went from a traumatized and fragmented republic to a Nazi dictatorship."—Christian Science Monitor
“A dramatic retelling….It is [Fritzche’s] capacity for turning the lens back onto the viewer that makes his work so profound and so convincing.”
—New York Times Book Review
- "Extensive primary sources, including novels, films, journalism, and diplomatic memos... animate the means through which Hitler's system fused party with nation and forged ordinary Germans into Nazis."
- On Sale
- Mar 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Basic Books