April 02, 2014

Actual and alternative history meet in book on Hitler's rise

Hitler's Thirty Days To Power: Jan-33Hitler's Thirty Days To Power: Jan-33 by Henry Ashby Turner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Easy read, and a lucid and well-thought one, of one of two transitional points in the 20th century; the other being 1917 in Russia, of course.

Turner shows that three people were primarily responsible for Hitler coming to power: current Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher; his predecessor, Franz von Papen; and President Paul von Hindenburg. Lesser roles were played by Hindenburg's son Oskar and his presidential secretary, Otto Meissner, along with Alfred Hugenberg of the German National People's Party.

A key point is that Hitler's rise was not inevitable, and Turner lays out a detailed case for its contingency.

The crux of the matter was the Weimer constitution. The German president had plenty of non-ceremonial powers, including the right to issue emergency decrees. From 1930 on, no Chancellor was able to form a parliamentary majority, so all governed in part by use of these decrees, and their cabinets were known as presidential, rather than parliamentary, cabinets.

Papen tried to rope Hitler into his late-1932 cabinet as vice chancellor, a title he showed as useless himself when he got the same role in Hitler's cabinet. Hitler, with his all-or-nothing strategy, refused.

Hindenburg, also in late 1932, offered Hitler the chance to govern, but only if he could form a parliamentary majority; he declined.

Schleicher, who had put Papen in power as a tool, then grew tired and distrustful of him, so he resigned his Army commission and stood for the Chancellorship himself.

Turner makes clear that all three major players, and the two main secondary ones, consistently underestimated Hitler. None apparently had read Mein Kampf, even though at the state level, the state of Prussia, when under control of the Social Democrats, had civil servants do an analysis, based on the book, on what exactly the Nazis would do if they got power.

Also, Papen and Schleicher both, naively, thought they could control Hitler.

Once the Hindenburgs took a personal dislike to Schleicher, and Papen convinced them that he could control Hitler and (according to Turner) deceived them that Hitler would have a parliamentary cabinet pending the filling in of a few blanks, and Hugenberg decided that this was the best brass ring he could grasp and that he could join Papen in controlling Hitler, the die was cast.

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Turner concludes with something that will always get my attention: alternative history.

He asks, "What if the Three Stooges, and the Three Lesser Lackeys, hadn't given in to Hitler?"

It's a very good question.

As for Hitler himself, he notes, as all history aficionados of the period know, that the Nazis' vote declined from summer 1932 to the end of fall election, and that the party was nearly broke.

So, Turner says, if only Schleicher had waited him out, Hitler and the Nazis would have continued to slide.

Of course, Hitler could have called out the storm troopers and made a putsch attempt.

But Turner notes that the WWI allies had already agreed to remove the 100,000 man limit on the Germany Army. He thinks a resolute chancellor could have put down such a coup.

As for Hitler's reviving the Germany economy? A large part of that was actions undertaken by a Schleicher cabinet minister.

So, what might have happened? Turner notes that by 1933, a fair chunk of central and eastern Europe had already gone to traditional-type military dictatorships; arguably, Franco a few years later fit this mold. Given German militarism, such a dictatorship, probably with some degree of anti-Semitism but far less than that of Hitler's, could easily have been implemented by coup.

Schleicher himself was in position, but irritated Hindenburg and hit his Peter Principle limit as chancellor.



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