The Weimar Republic that followed German defeat in World War I proved a switchback of political fortunes. In the 14 years after the Treaty of Versailles 20 separate government coalitions revealed the weaknesses of democracy as a system. The economic chaos of the Wall Street Crash and the death in 1929 of Gustav Stresemann (peacemaker among the democratic splinter groups of the center, stabilizer of German currency, and the only man to face down Hitler), created conditions in which the anti-democratic Nazis and Communists thrived.
By the November 1932 elections the Nazis held more seats but steady Communist gains were sufficient to alarm Germany’s right-wing industrialists. The useless outgoing Chancellor Franz von Papen was able to persuade his fellow-aristocrat President Hindenburg (who loathed the ‘foreign corporal’) that with a government weighted by reliable Prussians, it was safe to replace Chancellor von Schliecher with Hitler, who would ‘safeguard corporate interests’ against the Communists. Hindsight makes you want to scream ‘Behind you!’
Hitler now had the position, but not the numbers. Two months later, the Reichstag burnt down. Rumor blamed the blameless Communists, and a week after that another election gave the Nazis a much-increased 44.5 per cent of the seats. It still wasn’t enough. Hitler ran circles round the old buffer Hindenburg to make rapid alliances with the conservative DNVP and the Catholic Centre Party. With stardust in their eyes, they gave Hitler the two-thirds majority he needed to ram through the Enabling Act of March 23 1933 – a law which permitted him to pass any legislation without even consulting the Reichstag. It gave Hitler real teeth, and he bit immediately.
The communist KPD and Social Democratic Party (SPD) were outlawed. There was no other opposition.
Hitler had his legally sanctioned dictatorship. The ninth German federal election of the Weimar Republic was the last election before World War H.
When: March 5 1933
Toll: The fragile codes of civilization melted before an onslaught of barbarity worthy of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Hitler had set out his political stall in Mein Kampf years earlier. Germany – admittedly bone-weary from unemployment, hunger, despair and continuous exploitation by an obsolete Prussian hierarchy – voted for what they thought Hitler offered, and turned their backs in fear once they realized what the pact actually entailed. Could a single event have a worse outcome?
You should know: An immediate consequence of the 1933 election was the start of the diaspora of German artists, architects, scientists, film makers, philosophers, writers, circus performers and many others who had contributed to making the Weimar republic such a vibrant, creative powerhouse in spite of the daily contest to stay alive. Their individual disasters under Hitler’s persecution transformed and enriched the rest of the world, wherever they were transplanted.