“Elected chancellor of Germany in 1932, Hitler was held in contempt by his opponents, who thought he would be easy to control. They were wrong.
—let loose the police against Jews and Communists to a degree never seen before;
—won emergency powers to govern by decree following the incredibly well-timed February 27 arson against the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building;
—begun the shutdown of dissent and diversity in German publishing and culture through a policy of Gleichschaltung, or forcing everybody onto the same page.
The German establishment was taken aback. The well-meaning conservatives who in 1933 levered Hitler into office thought they could build fences of moderation around him once they got him under the tent. After all, the new cabinet would contain a majority of non-Nazis.
“Within two months, we’ll have Hitler in a corner so tight that he will squeak,” said vice-chancellor Franz von Papen, who brokered the deal.
But Hitler surprised everyone by doing exactly what he had been preaching for more than a decade: turning Germany into an ethnically pure, nationalistically-driven economic machine for making Germany great again. And he thought he could do it fast.
For that, Hitler had Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels. In 1933, they were not yet the monsters of history that they later became. But they were ambitious political operatives with a radical agenda and a charismatic leader. They acted with speed and force.
Göring’s power lay in the sly way Hitler had negotiated for control of the Prussian state police apparatus as part of his deal with Papen to become chancellor. Göring quickly fired the moderates in the security apparatus and suspended civil liberties of targeted groups—Jews, Communists, and even Social Democrats. Göring operated under the pretext of defending Germany against “imminent” Marxist revolution, imported from the Soviet Union and mounted by Germany’s own Communist party.
The government in Moscow had indeed hoped for years to foment revolution in Germany, and the local Communists were often inclined to violence—just like the Nazis. But the KPD—the German Communist Party—never came close to seizing power. In the 14 years of the Weimar Republic, the party only once polled more than 15 percent. The Nazis, meanwhile, had hit 37 percent in 1932, making them Germany’s largest party even before the takeover in 1933.
Still, Communists served as Hitler’s proximate bugaboo, justifying all kinds of excesses. He waved the bloody shirt of “30 million killed” by the revolutionary regime in Russia to invoke a “Jewish-Bolshevist threat” in Germany. The only thing that stood between God-fearing Germans and a Communist dictatorship, he implied, was a dictatorship of the Nazis.
Hitler also built on an early version of fake news. His starting point was the invented calumny “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”—a 1903 document alleging a Jewish world conspiracy. Even after Hitler learned the text was a forgery, he continued using it as “real” because it contained “the inner truth” about Jewry, he said.
In 1932, with Hitler looming ever larger in German politics, Kurt Schumacher, a Social Democratic leader, noted that “one thing we admire about the National Socialists is that they have succeeded … for the first time in German politics, in the complete mobilization of human stupidity.”
Schumacher’s biting irony and trenchant warning made no difference. Desperate to build a political firewall against the perceived Communist and Social Democratic threat, the German establishment led by Papen and President von Hindenburg in 1933 invited Hitler to head a “government of national concentration”—a supposed compromise between Hitler’s radicals and establishment conservatives.
Within months, it was the conservatives, not Hitler, who were in a corner. After little more than a year, most were marginalized and one—former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher—was dead, assassinated in Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives. Once under the tent, Hitler had been able to seize the whole show and, for Nazi Germany, there was no turning back, only the long, fateful march to self-destruction.”