Was Adolf Hitler democratically elected? Or rather was the Nazis’ rise to power one that came with the democratic consent of the German people?
These questions are not as easy to answer as one might imagine. In part, this has to do with the trajectory that the Weimar republic took in the years before 1933, meaning the years during which Hitler and his NSDAP rose to popularity and ultimately to power; in other parts, it has to do with the peculiarities of the Weimar democratic system; and finally, it has to do with the understanding of democratic that is applied. Because Hitler did not win the election for president but rather, he became part of the government by forming a coalition after the NSDAP had won a significant part – though not a majority – of the popular vote in parliamentary elections.
But first things first: What is a Weimar and what does he do?
The Weimar Republic as it became known from the 1930s forward is a name for Germany – at this point still officially named the German Reich – during the republic, democratic phase between 1918 and 1929/1933. The Weimar Republic was a political system that functioned as a democratic parliamentary republic but with a strong and directly elected president. Functioning as a democratic republic, governments were formed from parliamentary coalitions that had a majority of representatives in the German Reichstag.
The Weimar Republic is most commonly associated with crisis. It started with a revolution that until early 1919 still had to be decided if it was a communist revolution on top of a political, democratic one with this not turning out to be the case. Still, in subsequent years the republic was plagued by a variety of crises: Hyper-inflation, the occupation of the Rhineland by the Allies, and political turmoil such as the first attempted coup by parties like the Nazi party and a variety of political assassination by fascists and right-wingers.
Still, even under these circumstances, the fall of the republic was not pre-ordained like the story is often told. When people emphasize how the Versailles treaty f.ex. is responsible for the Nazi take-over of power, it is thinking the republic from its end and ignoring the relatively quiet and successful and functioning years of the republic that occurred between 1924 and 1929.
Here the Great Depression and economic crisis of 1929 plays an important role for Weimar political culture to change fundamentally. As Richard Evans writes in The Coming of the Third Reich:
The Depression’s first political victim was the Grand Coalition cabinet led by the Social Democrat Hermann Müller, one of the Republic’s most stable and durable governments, in office since the elections of 1928. The Grand Coalition was a rare attempt to compromise between the ideological and social interests of the Social Democrats and the ‘bourgeois’ parties left of the Nationalists. […] Deprived of the moderating influence of its former leader Gustav Stresemann, who died in October 1929, the People’s Party broke with the coalition over the Social Democrats’ refusal to cut unemployment benefits, and the government was forced to tender its resignation on 27 March 1930.
Indeed, from that point onwards, German governments would not rule with the support of parliamentary majority anymore, namely because they would rule without participation of the Democratic Socialist SPD, which had been throughout the Weimar years and until 1932 the party with the largest part of the vote in parliament. And yet, the German parties to the right of the SPD couldn’t agree on a lot in many ways but they could agree that they rejected the SPD and even more so the again burgeoning communist movement in Germany.
From 1930 forward, Weimar governments would not govern by passing laws through parliament but instead by presidential emergency decree. Article 48 of the Weimar constitution famously included a passage that should public security and order be threatened, the Reichspräsident – at that time Paul von Hindenburg – “may take measures necessary for their restoration, intervening if need be with the assistance of the armed forces.” However, these measures were to be immediately reported to the Reichstag which then could revoke them with a majority.
The problem that arose here was that because the conservative parties did not have a majority in parliament for they refused to work and compromise at all with the SPD and because the SPD refused to work with the communist KPD, chancellor Brüning and later on Papen argued to Hindenburg that this constituted an emergency and thus began ruling independent of parliament through the use of presidential decree.
Additionally, because they embraced a course of austerity and cutting social spending while at the same time privileging the wealthy, political discontent began spreading in Germany to a great decree. Most notably, both the KPD but even more so the NSDAP began gaining votes. In 1928 the NSDAP garnered 2,6 % of the total votes when in 1930 they were already the second strongest party with 18% and finally in the first election of 1932 the strongest party in parliament with 37%.
It was above all the Nazis who profited from the increasingly overheated political atmosphere of the early 1930s, as more and more people who had not previously voted began to flock to the polls. Roughly a quarter of those who voted Nazi in 1930 had not voted before. Many of these were young, first-time voters, who belonged to the large birth-cohorts of the pre-1914 years.
Yet these electors do not seem to have voted disproportionately for the Nazis; the Party’s appeal, in fact, was particularly strong amongst the older generation, who evidently no longer considered the Nationalists vigorous enough to destroy the hated Republic. Roughly a third of the Nationalist voters of 1928 voted for the Nazis in 1930, a quarter of the Democratic and People’s Party voters, and even a tenth of Social Democratic voters.
Concurrently, political violence escalated in the streets. Nazis fought the communists and social democrats in the streets, in a calculated bid to destabilize German democracy and political culture while using their press organs to instigate a culture war, resulting in what essentially became a parallel reality for adherents to Nazi ideology who would go on to believe that “international Jewry” controlled the government and the international scene and that the baby-slaughtering, blood-drinking evil doers planned to destroy the German “race”.
This was hard to curb because those charged with upholding public order did not do a very good job at it. Evans again:
Facing this situation of rapidly mounting disorder was a police force that was distinctly shaky in its allegiance to Weimar democracy. […] The force was inevitably recruited from the ranks of ex-soldiers, since a high proportion of the relevant age group had been conscripted during the war.
The new force found itself run by ex-officers, former professional soldiers and Free Corps fighters. They set a military tone from the outset and were hardly enthusiastic supporters of the new order. […] they were serving an abstract notion of ‘the state’ or the Reich, rather than the specific democratic institutions of the newly founded Republic.
Within this volatile situation, the year of 1932 saw two parliamentary elections: The July 1932 already took place in the midst of civil war-esque scenes in Germany with the Nazis clashing with the left. During the elections, violence escalated with the police unwilling or unable to act. In Altona – now part of Hamburg – shortly before the election the Nazis marched through traditionally left-wing Altona when shots were fired, and two SA men were wounded. In response, the SA and the local police fired back shooting 16 people.
This was then used by the conservative government to de-power the Social Democratic government in Prussia and instead place it under a government commissar, arguing that otherwise the SPD would turn Prussia into an anarchist, lawless place. Shortly after the vote was called, a group of SA men in Potempa in Northern Germany broke into a communist’s apartment in the village and beat him to death in front of his elderly mother, which further spurred fears of political violence.
A new government was hard to form and in response German conservatives lead by Franz von Papen und Kurt Schleicher embraced fascism and the Nazis: They tried to form a government involving the Nazis, following the logic that they would rather work with fascists than compromise with leftists and because they felt threatened by communism.
At first, the Nazis rejected this advance demanding more power within the government – a strategy that worked out. Following another election in November 1932, a new government was formed in January 1933 with Hitler as chancellor supported by Papen and Schleicher.
This however was not enough and so another vote was called: The Reichstag election of March 1933 would be the last election until 1945 where several parties would take part in. Already, voter suppression methods were in full force. The NSDAP used SA, SS and police to keep social democrats and communists from voting; social democratic and communist rallies and publication were prohibited, and on February 27 the Reichstagsbrand happened.
Following the attempt to set the Reichstag on fire by marinus van der Lubbe, a supporter of the communists from the Netherlands, the Nazi government used emergency powers to start arresting people, prohibiting other parties, the unions, forming concentration camps and start suppressing political opponents.
This really marks the beginning of Nazi rule in full force. Still, in the March 1933 elections, the NSDAP managed to garner about 43% of the vote while the SPD with all the suppression and so forth going on became second strongest party with about 18%. But it didn’t matter anymore: Embraced and supported by the German conservative political establishment, the Nazis would impose authoritarian rule and brutally suppress other political movements, starting Nazi dictatorship and ultimately even turning on some of the very people who had lifted them to power.
Oftentimes, discussion will revolve around the fact that not a majority of people voted for the Nazis (their best result being just above 40%) or that they rose to power legally because the coalition governments where within what German law allowed. However, the big question to me that brings it back to the initial question of this text and that is a very pertinent one, is: When is the point where a system stops working as intended and therefore democracy becomes hollow resp. it stops being democratic?
The Germany where the Nazi celebrated their electoral successes was a Germany that German conservatives already didn’t govern democratically anymore. For at least three years, Germany was governed not by elected parliament but by presidential decree during a time when Nazi violence against political opponents and counter-violence escalated massively and often tolerated in a calculated way or with little pushback.
In July 1932, shortly before the first Reichstag election of that year, the German federal government deposed a democratically elected Social Democratic state government and replaced it by a commissar using occurrences completely elsewhere as a justification for this authoritarian move.
Under such circumstances, with the German political system already sliding into authoritarian patterns of behavior, is it justified to still speak of it as a democracy or can it be said that the growth of the Nazi party came about not under democratic circumstance but were cultivated by the authoritarian tendencies of the conservative end of the political spectrum and their refusal to accept social democratic politics addressing an economic and social crisis?
2. Richard Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich
3.Ian Kershaw: The Nazi Dictatorship. Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation
4.Ian Kershaw: Hitler
5. Peter Fritsche: “Did Weimar Fail?” The Journal of Modern History. 68 (3) 1996: 629–656.