Structure of the German GovernmentAt the end of World War I, the existing German government under Kaiser Wilhelm II collapsed. In its place, Germany’s first experiment with democracy, known as the Weimar Republic, commenced. One of the new government’s first actions was to sign the controversial Treaty of Versailles which placed blame for WWI solely upon Germany.
The new democracy was primarily composed of the following:
- A president, who was elected every seven years and vested with immense powers.
- A chancellor, who was appointed by the president to oversee the Reichstag. The chancellor was frequently a member of the majority party in the Reichstag.
- The Reichstag, or German Parliament, which was elected every four years and based on proportional representation (i.e. the number of seats was based on the number of votes received by each party).
Hitler’s Return to GovernmentAfter his imprisonment for the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was outwardly reluctant to return as the leader of the Nazi Party; however, it did not take long for party followers to convince Hitler that they needed his leadership once again.
With Hitler as leader, the Nazi Party gained over 100 seats in the Reichstag by 1930 and was viewed as a significant party within the German government. Much of this success can be attributed to the party’s propaganda leader, Josef Goebbels.
The Presidential Election of 1932In the spring of 1932, Hitler ran against incumbent and WWI hero Paul von Hindenburg. The initial presidential election on March 13, 1932 was an impressive showing for the Nazi Party with Hitler receiving 30% of the vote. Hindenburg won 49% of the vote and was the leading candidate; however, he did not receive the absolute majority needed to be awarded the presidency. A run-off election was set for April 10.
Hitler gained over 2 million votes in the run-off, or approximately 36% of the total votes. Hindenburg only gained 1 million votes on his previous count but it was enough to give him 53% of the total electorate -- enough for him to be elected to another term as president of the struggling republic.
The Nazis and the ReichstagAlthough Hitler lost the election, the election results showed that the Nazi Party had grown both powerful and popular. In June, Hindenburg used his presidential power to dissolve the Reichstag and appointed Franz von Papen as the new chancellor. As a result, a new election had to be held for the members of the Reichstag. In this July 1932 election, the popularity of the Nazi Party would be further affirmed with their massive gain of an additional 123 seats, making them the largest party in the Reichstag.
The following month, Papen offered his former supporter, Hitler, the position of Vice Chancellor. By this point, Hitler realized that he could not manipulate Papen and refused to accept the position. Instead, he worked to make Papen’s job difficult and aimed to enact a vote of no confidence. Papen orchestrated another dissolution of the Reichstag before this could occur.
In the next Reichstag election, the Nazis lost 34 seats. Despite this loss, the Nazis remained powerful. Papen, who was struggling to create a working coalition within the parliament, was unable to do so without including the Nazis. With no coalition, Papen was forced to resign his position of chancellor in November of 1932.
Hitler saw this as another opportunity to promote himself into the position of chancellor; however, Hindenburg instead appointed Kurt von Schleicher. Papen was dismayed by this choice as he had attempted in the interim to convince Hindenburg to reinstate him as chancellor and allow him to rule by emergency decree.
A Winter of DeceitOver the course of the next two months, there was much political intrigue and backroom negotiations that occurred within the German government. A wounded Papen learned of Schleicher’s plan to split the Nazi Party and alerted Hitler. Hitler continued to cultivate the support he was gaining from bankers and industrialists throughout Germany and these groups increased their pressure on Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor. Papen worked behind the scenes against Schleicher, who soon found out.
Schleicher, upon discovering Papen’s deceit, went to Hindenburg to request the President order Papen to cease his activities. Hindenburg did the exact opposite and encouraged Papen to continue his discussions with Hitler, as long as Papen agreed to keep the talks a secret from Schleicher.
A series of meetings between Hitler, Papen, and important German officials were held during the month of January. Schleicher began to realize that he was in a tenuous position and twice asked Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and place the country under emergency decree. Both times, Hindenburg refused and on the second instance, Schleicher resigned.
Hitler Is Appointed ChancellorOn January 29th, a rumor began to circulate that Schleicher was planning to overthrow Hindenburg. An exhausted Hindenburg decided that the only way to eliminate the threat by Schleicher and to end the instability within the government was to appoint Hitler as chancellor.
As part of the appointment negotiations, Hindenburg guaranteed Hitler that four important cabinet posts could be given to Nazis. As a sign of his gratitude and to offer reassurance of his professed good faith to Hindenburg, Hitler agreed to appoint Papen to one of the posts.
Despite Hindenburg’s misgivings, Hitler was officially appointed as chancellor and sworn in at noon on January 30, 1933. Papen was named as his vice-chancellor, a nomination Hindenburg decided to insist upon to relieve some of his own hesitation with Hitler’s appointment. Longtime Nazi Party member Hermann Göring was appointed in the dual roles of Minister of the Interior of Prussia and Minister Without Portfolio. Another Nazi, Wilhelm Frick, was named Minister of the Interior.