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The Rise of the Nazi Party in Germany

Eighty years ago, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, NSDAP or Nazi Party, won all 661 seats of the Reichstag in the German federal elections of November 12, 1933. The victory marked the bitter end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s uncontested reign over Germany.  The absolute triumph of the Nazi Party resulted from the simple fact that all other parties were outlawed, and voter intimidation was widespread.  The U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Edward Dodd (1933–37), reported that even “in the concentration camp at Dachau 2,231 inmates voted for the Government (Hitler), while only 9 cast invalid ballots and 3 voted against the Government.” (November 15, 1933; Berlin 263) Regardless of the election’s inevitable outcome, the Enabling Act, passed earlier that year, granted Chancellor Hitler the power to enact laws without submission to or ratification by the Reichstag.

The Nazi victory was the culmination of years of political turmoil and violence. Crises of governance, which plagued Germany’s previous government, usually referred to as the “Weimar Republic,” climaxed in 1930 when the Great Depression began to erode German economic and social stability. That year, the parliamentary coalition of the Social Democrats and the Centre Party collapsed. Electoral gains by the Nazis and the Communists prevented the formation of a new coalition. The U.S. chargé d’affaires in Berlin reported “The first strong impression from the election is the predominate factors were disgust and recklessness. The enormous gains by the Hitler supporters and the Communists indicate this.” (September 15, 1930; Telegram from Berlin) President Paul von Hindenburg appointed as Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, who was head of the Centre Party. Because of the stalemate in the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament), Brüning was forced to rely on Hindenburg’s presidential emergency powers to govern.  In May 1932, Hindenburg replaced Brüning with Franz von Papen, an outcast from the Centre Party who had no support in the Reichstag. U.S. Ambassador to Germany Frederic Mosley Sackett (1930–33) argued that Brüning’s fall “represents a definite challenge on the part of land owning class and the big industrialists to the power of the German trade unions.” (June 8, 1932; Berlin 1777)  In order to prevent the Reichstag from dismissing von Papen, Hindenburg dissolved Parliament and called for new elections, set for July 31 1932.

Shortly before the elections, von Papen repealed Brüning’s ban on the Nazi Storm Troopers, who had terrorized the Nazi’s political opponents. The ensuing crescendo of political violence perpetrated by the resurgent Storm Troopers further weakened parliamentary democracy in Germany. As a result of the July 31, 1932 elections, the Nazi Party became the largest party in the Reichstag, with 230 seats out of 608, winning over 37 % of the vote. Ambassador Sackett reported that “as a result of yesterday’s elections the new Reichstag will reflect the change that has taken place in German political life.” (August 1, 1932; Telegram from Berlin) Because the Nazi Party was unwilling to form a government coalition with its enemies, the Social Democrats and the Communists, the stalemate continued and von Papen governed by emergency decree.

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Hitler with Franz von Papen in May 1933. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

In order to forestall a vote of no confidence against von Papen, Hindenburg called another election for November 6, 1932, which proved to be the last free and fair election before the Hitler’s seizure of power. The Nazi Party’s popularity was waning. It won only 33% of the vote and lost 34 seats in the Reichstag. However, Hitler convinced Hindenburg to make himself Chancellor and von Papen Vice-Chancellor. Hitler’s machinations, which culminated on January 30, 1933, became known as the Nazi Machtergreifung, or Seizure of Power. In order to neutralize all remaining opposition, Hitler convinced Hindenburg to call for another election, while, according to U.S. chargé d’affaires Kliefoth, “endeavoring to dispel the apprehensions which the formation of the Hitler Cabinet evoked among the republican elements and in the ranks of organized labor.” (January 31, 1933; Berlin 2163)

The Nazis violently suppressed the Social Democrats and the Communists, in part by burning down the Reichstag and arresting many Social Democrat and Communist leaders. However, Hitler’s attempt to blot out all opposition was not yet successful; resistance lingered and the Nazis failed again to win a parliamentary majority in the elections of March 5, 1933. During the next six months, Hitler destroyed the last vestiges of democracy in Germany: Storm Troopers bullied the Reichstag into voting for the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the power to make his own laws and thus enabled the Nazis to abolish all trade unions and ban all other political parties. Only through these measures—combined with violent intimidation of voters at the polls—were the Nazis able to win all 661 Reichstag seat in the November 12th elections.

For more information regarding the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, see Foreign Relations of the United States, 1930, volume III; 1932, volume II, The British Commonwealth, Europe, Near East and Africa; and 1933, volume II, The British Commonwealth, Europe, Near East and Africa. Digital versions of these volumes are located in the Foreign Relations of the United States collection in the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

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