Reengineering the Weimar Republic (3)

HindenburgThere was, however, one more problem that neither Reichsstatthalters nor the national police force (nor even the Enabling Act) could solve. Adolf Hitler still did not have the absolute power in Germany.

Yes, he was the head of the government who now had both executive and legislative powers (the latter meant that rather sooner than later he would acquire a judicial power as well).

However, there was still one man in Germany who could put an end to that almost instantly – by dismissing Hitler from the position of Reich Chancellor. That man was President of the German Reich Generalfeldmarschall Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg.

Given that Hindenburg was still a popular war hero and a revered figure in the Reichswehr, there was little doubt that the Reichswehr would side with Hindenburg if he ever decided to sack Hitler. And despite its 20:1 numerical superiority, the SA was no match for a well-trained and superbly commanded professional army.

Despite the solid support that he got from Hindenburg after becoming Chancellor, Hitler had no illusions about his future. He knew that he needed a genuine miracle to avoid being sacked by the Reich President.

First, Hindenburg being an aristocrat and the German (actually, Prussian) general of the highest rank, fundamentally disliked Hitler whom he considered plebeian. True, he approved of Hitler’s efforts to create the volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”) in Germany – his dream since 1914 and viewed Hitler’s “Government of National Concentration” the fulfilment of his dream.

Hindenburg did sign the “Reichstag Fire Decree” almost instantly – but only because he hated Communists far more than he disliked Hitler. A diehard monarchist, he forced Hitler to make a solemn promise that after Germany “regained full sovereignty” (i.e. returns all its lands and frees itself from the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles), the latter would restore monarchy in Germany.

Hitler had no desire to do so and knew that von Hindenburg ultimately would figure that out – with disastrous consequences for his Chancellor. He also knew that rather sooner than later his brutal, criminal and murderous methods will become unacceptable for the Prussian aristocrat.

It did happen – and, indeed, very soon, barely a year after the Enabling Act gave Hitler almost absolute power in Germany. During the summer of 1934, Hindenburg grew increasingly alarmed at Nazi excesses (which for that time became evident even for those willing to give Hitler enormous benefit of the doubt).

With President’s support, on June 17th, Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen gave a speech at the University of Marburg calling for an end to state terror and the restoration of at least some freedoms. Which for all practical purposes would have been the end of “Nazi revolution”.

When Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels got wind of it, he (wisely) not only canceled a scheduled tape-delayed broadcast of the speech, but ordered the seizure of newspapers in which part of the text was printed (another wise move).

Von Papen was furious, telling Hitler that he was acting as a “trustee” of Hindenburg (which was formally true), and that a “junior minister” like Goebbels had no right to silence him.

Hindenburg was equally outraged, and ordered Minister of Defense Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg to give Hitler an ultimatum: unless Hitler took steps to end the growing tension in Germany and rein in the SA, Hindenburg would sack Hitler, declare martial law and turn the government over to the army.

The Night of the Long Knives did rein in the SA and earn Hitler the personal thanks of Hindenburg. The crisis was defused, but Hitler knew that it was only a matter of time before the President figured out that it was not the SA that was a problem – it was Hitler.

Fortunately for Hitler (for whom it was another Act of Providence), von Hindenburg time was what von Hindenburg did not have. On August 2nd, two weeks after the Marburg speech which almost cost Hitler his job, Reichspräsident von Hindenburg died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86 from lung cancer at his home in Neudeck, East Prussia.

The day before, Hitler had got word that Hindenburg was on his deathbed. He then had his cabinet pass the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich,” which stipulated that upon Hindenburg’s death, the offices of president and chancellor would be merged under the title of Leader and Chancellor (Führer und Reichskanzler).

Two hours after Hindenburg’s death, it was announced that as a result of this law, Hitler was now both Germany’s head of state and head of government, thereby eliminating the last legal instrument by which he could be legally dismissed and  making him the absolute ruler of Germany.

In reality, Hitler correctly predicted that von Hindenburg would not survive a year (this time his intuition – or his mystical powers – served him well) four months earlier, in April of 1934.

He prepared the abovementioned law and got the Reichswehr the only force in Germany powerful enough to remove him with Hindenburg gone to support his bid to merge the offices of President and Chancellor (and thus become the Führer of Germany) after Hindenburg’s death.

On April 11th, on board of the brand-new heavy cruiser Deutschland (it was commissioned just ten days earlier) he met with top Reichswehr commanders – Minister of Defense von Blomberg, army commander Generaloberst (four-star general) Werner von Fritsch and Head of the Naval Command Admiral Erich Raeder.

Hitler offered them a deal. In return for the armed forces’ support for him becoming the Führer of Germany, he will suppress the SA (alleviating the topmost concern of Reichswehr brass) and solemnly promised that the armed forces would be the only military force in Germany under his watch.

Raeder agreed right away, but Blomberg and Fritsch withheld his support until May 18th, when all senior generals of the Reichswehr unanimously agreed to back Hitler as Hindenburg’s successor. Hitler did not forget their hesitations and three years later orchestrated the infamous forcing both to resign in disgrace from their posts in early 1938.

However, it was still not enough – Adolf Hitler still had to overcome one more obstacle on his path to absolute power in Germany. Weimar Constitution had been amended in 1932 to place the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, first in the line of succession in the event of President’s death and even then, only on an interim basis pending a new presidential election.

Which made the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich” and thus the assumption of the office of the President by Hitler plainly unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

To overcome this obstacle, Hitler ordered a plebiscite held on August 19th, 1934 thus going directly to the German people. By that time Hitler managed to radically improve the German economy (unemployment went down 40%) and conducted several popular reforms.

Consequently, it is not a surprise that over 88% of the votes were in favor of his proposal (by that time already a reality). While under the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act (and Gestapo and special political courts working at full power) the referendum could hardly be called free and fair, there is no doubt that the majority of the population supported his becoming the Führer of Germany.

However, Hitler had no desire to keep the promise made to the military. On September 24th, 1934 (five months after making his solemn promise to Reichswehr commanders) he ordered establishment of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) – the military wing of the Nazi Party. Which in a few years became Waffen SS – the most fearsome military force in modern history.

Hitler’s ultimate objective was to ultimately incorporate Wehrmacht into Waffen SS and into the State Protection Corps devised by Heinrich Himmler. This was the only way he could become genuinely absolute ruler of Germany as the Wehrmacht still had a certain degree of independence from The Führer.

After the beginning of the World War II this objective became clear to Wehrmacht top brass. They had no desire to do away with their commander-in-chief during the war (big mistake after 1941) but after the victory Hitler had a snowball-in-Hell chances of political (and even physical survival).

Top Wehrmacht commanders (even loyal to Hitler) had no desire to become victims of the Night of the Long Knives II, which was the only way for Adolf Hitler to replace the Wehrmacht generals with the ones from Waffen-SS and incorporate the former into the latter.

Thus the military coup after Hitler’s victory in World War II was inevitable. Consequently, the Third Reich (and personally Adolf Hitler) were doomed either way, regardless of whether they won or lost the war.

However, in March of 1933 the Great War II was not even on the horizon. Hitler knew how to establish a firm administrative control over Germans and achieved this very ambitious objective in just three years (no small feat).

But the administrative control was not enough. To fulfil his enormous responsibilities and to achieve his grandiose objectives, he needed a firm control over the hearts, minds and souls of his subjects.

Which required a mighty and a very efficient machine. Nazi propaganda machine.

 

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