The Forgotten History of Hitler’s Establishment Enablers

It was indeed a “normal” election in that respect, responding not least to the outburst of “normal” politics with which Hitler had littered his program: he had, in the months beforehand, damped down his usual ranting about Jews and bankers and moneyed élites and the rest. He had recorded a widely distributed phonograph album (the era’s equivalent of a podcast) designed to make him seem, well, Chancellor-ish. He emphasized agricultural support and a return to better times, aiming, as Ryback writes, “to bridge divides of class and conscience, socialism and nationalism.” By the strange alchemy of demagoguery, a brief visit to the surface of sanity annulled years and years of crazy.

The Germans were voting, in the absent-minded way of democratic voters everywhere, for easy reassurances, for stability, with classes siding against their historical enemies. They weren’t wild-eyed nationalists voting for a millennial authoritarian regime that would rule forever and restore Germany to glory, and, certainly, they weren’t voting for an apocalyptic nightmare that would leave tens of millions of people dead and the cities of Germany destroyed. They were voting for specific programs that they thought would benefit them, and for a year’s insurance against the people they feared.

Ryback spends most of his time with two pillars of respectable conservative Germany, General Kurt von Schleicher and the right-wing media magnate Alfred Hugenberg. Utterly contemptuous of Hitler as a lazy buffoon—he didn’t wake up until eleven most mornings and spent much of his time watching and talking about movies—the two men still hated the Communists and even the center-left Social Democrats more than they did anyone on the right, and they spent most of 1932 and 1933 scheming to use Hitler as a stalking horse for their own ambitions.

Schleicher is perhaps first among Ryback’s too-clever-for-their-own-good villains, and the book presents a piercingly novelistic picture of him. Though in some ways a classic Prussian militarist, Schleicher, like so many of the German upper classes, was also a cultivated and cosmopolitan bon vivant, whom the well-connected journalist and diarist Bella Fromm called “a man of almost irresistible charm.” He was a character out of a Jean Renoir film, the regretful Junker caught in modern times. He had no illusions about Hitler (“What am I to do with that psychopath?” he said after hearing about his behavior), but, infinitely ambitious, he thought that Hitler’s call for strongman rule might awaken the German people to the need for a real strongman, i.e., Schleicher. Ryback tells us that Schleicher had a strategy he dubbed the Zähmungsprozess, or “taming process,” which was meant to sideline the radicals of the Nazi Party and bring the movement into mainstream politics. He publicly commended Hitler as a “modest, orderly man who only wants what is best” and who would follow the rule of law. He praised Hitler’s paramilitary troops, too, defending them against press reports of street violence. In fact, as Ryback explains, the game plan was to have the Brown Shirts crush the forces of the left—and then to have the regular German Army crush the Brown Shirts.

Schleicher imagined himself a master manipulator of men and causes. He liked to play with a menagerie of glass animal figurines on his desk, leaving the impression that lesser beings were mere toys to be handled. In June of 1932, he prevailed on Hindenburg to give the Chancellorship to Papen, a weak politician widely viewed as Schleicher’s puppet; Papen, in turn, installed Schleicher as minister of defense. Then they dissolved the Reichstag and held those July elections which, predictably, gave the Nazis a big boost.

Ryback spends many mordant pages tracking Schleicher’s whirling-dervish intrigues, as he tried to realize his fantasy of the Zähmungsprozess. Many of these involved schemes shared with the patriotic and staunchly anti-Nazi General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (familiar to viewers of “Babylon Berlin” as Major General Seegers). Hammerstein was one of the few German officers to fully grasp Hitler’s real nature. At a meeting with Hitler in the spring of 1932, Hammerstein told him bluntly, “Herr Hitler, if you achieve power legally, that would be fine with me. If the circumstances are different, I will use arms.” He later felt reassured when Hindenburg intimated that, if the Nazi paramilitary troops acted, he could order the Army to fire on them.

Yet Hammerstein remained impotent. At various moments, Schleicher, as the minister of defense, entertained what was in effect a plan for imposing martial law with himself in charge and Hammerstein at his side. In retrospect, it was the last hope of protecting the republic from Hitler—but after President Hindenburg rejected it, not out of democratic misgivings but out of suspicion of Schleicher’s purposes, Hammerstein, an essentially tragic figure, was unable to act alone. He suffered from a malady found among decent military men suddenly thrust into positions of political power: his scruples were at odds with his habits of deference to hierarchy. Generals became generals by learning to take orders before they learned how to give them. Hammerstein hated Hitler, but he waited for someone else of impeccable authority to give a clear direction before he would act. (He went on waiting right through the war, as part of the equally impotent military nexus that wanted Hitler dead but, until it was too late, lacked the will to kill him.)

The extra-parliamentary actions that were fleetingly contemplated in the months after the election—a war in the streets, or, more likely, a civil confrontation leading to a military coup—seemed horrific. The trouble, unknowable to the people of the time, is that, since what did happen is the worst thing that has ever happened, any alternative would have been less horrific. One wants to shout to Hammerstein and his cohorts, Go ahead, take over the government! Arrest Hitler and his henchmen, rule for a few years, and then try again. It won’t be as bad as what happens next. But, of course, they cannot hear us. They couldn’t have heard us then.

Ryback’s gift for detail joins with a nice feeling for the black comedy of the period. He makes much sport of the attempts by foreign journalists resident in Germany, particularly the New York Times’ Frederick T. Birchall, to normalize the Nazi ascent—with Birchall continually assuring his readers that Hitler, an out-of-his-depth simpleton, was not the threat he seemed to be, and that the other conservatives were far more potent in their political maneuvering. When Papen made a speech denying that Hitler’s paramilitary forces represented “the German nation,” Birchall wrote that the speech “contained dynamite enough to change completely the political situation in the Reich.” On another occasion, Birchall wrote that “the Hitlerites” were deluded to think they “hold the best cards”; there was every reason to think that “the big cards, the ones that will really decide the game,” were in the hands of people such as Papen, Hindenburg, and, “above all,” Schleicher.

Ryback, focussing on the self-entrapped German conservatives, generally avoids the question that seems most obvious to a contemporary reader: Why was a coalition between the moderate-left Social Democrats and the conservative but far from Nazified Catholic Centrists never even seriously attempted? Given that Hitler had repeatedly vowed to use the democratic process in order to destroy democracy, why did the people committed to democracy let him do it?

Many historians have jousted with this question, but perhaps the most piercing account remains an early one, written less than a decade after the war by the émigré German scholar Lewis Edinger, who had known the leaders of the Social Democrats well and consulted them directly—the ones who had survived, that is—for his study. His conclusion was that they simply “trusted that constitutional processes and the return of reason and fair play would assure the survival of the Weimar Republic and its chief supporters.” The Social Democratic leadership had become a gerontocracy, out of touch with the generational changes beneath them. The top Social Democratic leaders were, on average, two decades older than their Nazi counterparts.

“That’s what I hate about whale parties—no room to dance and they always run out of krill.”

Cartoon by John Klossner

Worse, the Social Democrats remained in the grip of a long struggle with Bismarckian nationalism, which, however oppressive it might have been, still operated with a broad idea of legitimacy and the rule of law. The institutional procedures of parliamentarianism had always seen the Social Democrats through—why would those procedures not continue to protect them? In a battle between demagoguery and democracy, surely democracy had the advantage. Edinger writes that Karl Kautsky, among the most eminent of the Party’s theorists, believed that after the election Hitler’s supporters would realize he was incapable of fulfilling his promises and drift away.

The Social Democrats may have been hobbled, too, by their commitment to team leadership—which meant that no single charismatic individual represented them. Proceduralists and institutionalists by temperament and training, they were, as Edinger demonstrates, unable to imagine the nature of their adversary. They acceded to Hitler’s ascent with the belief that by respecting the rules themselves they would encourage the other side to play by them as well. Even after Hitler consolidated his power, he was seen to have secured the Chancellorship by constitutional means. Edinger quotes Arnold Brecht, a fellow exiled statesman: “To rise against him on the first night would make the rebels the technical violators of the Constitution that they wanted to defend.”

Meanwhile, the centrist Catholics—whom Hitler shrewdly recognized as his most formidable potential adversaries—were handicapped in any desire to join with the Democratic Socialists by their fear of the Communists. Though the Communists had previously made various alliances of convenience with the Social Democrats, by 1932 they were tightly controlled by Stalin, who had ordered them to depict the Social Democrats as being as great a threat to the working class as Hitler.

And, when a rumor spread that Hitler had once spat out a Communion Host, it only made him more popular among Catholics, since it called attention to his Catholic upbringing. Indeed, most attempts to highlight Hitler’s personal depravities (including his possibly sexual relationship with his niece Geli, which was no secret in the press of the time; her apparent suicide, less than a year before the election, had been a tabloid scandal) made him more popular. In any case, Hitler was skilled at reassuring the Catholic center, promising to be “the strong protector of Christianity as the basis of our common moral order.”

Hitler’s hatred of parliamentary democracy, even more than his hatred of Jews, was central to his identity, Ryback emphasizes. Antisemitism was a regular feature of populist politics in the region: Hitler had learned much of it in his youth from the Vienna mayor Karl Lueger. But Lueger was a genuine populist democrat, who brought universal male suffrage to the city. Hitler’s originality lay elsewhere. “Unlike Hitler’s anti-Semitism, a toxic brew of pseudoscientific readings and malignant mentoring, Hitler’s hatred of the Weimar Republic was the result of personal observation of political processes,” Ryback writes. “He hated the haggling and compromise of coalition politics inherent in multiparty political systems.”

Second only to Schleicher in Ryback’s accounting of Hitler’s establishment enablers is the media magnate Alfred Hugenberg. The owner of the country’s leading film studio and of the national news service, which supplied some sixteen hundred newspapers, he was far from an admirer. He regarded Hitler as manic and unreliable but found him essential for the furtherance of their common program, and was in and out of political alliance with him during the crucial year.

Hugenberg had begun constructing his media empire in the late nineteen-teens, in response to what he saw as the bias against conservatives in much of the German press, and he shared Hitler’s hatred of democracy and of the Jews. But he thought of himself as a much more sophisticated player, and intended to use his control of modern media in pursuit of what he called a Katastrophenpolitik—a “catastrophe politics” of cultural warfare, in which the strategy, Ryback says, was to “flood the public space with inflammatory news stories, half-truths, rumors, and outright lies.” The aim was to polarize the public, and to crater anything like consensus. Hugenberg gave Hitler money as well as publicity, but Hugenberg had his own political ambitions (somewhat undermined by a personal aura described by his nickname, der Hamster) and his own party, and Hitler was furiously jealous of the spotlight. While giving Hitler support in his media—a support sometimes interrupted by impatience—Hugenberg urged him to act rationally and settle for Nazi positions in the cabinet if he could not have the Chancellorship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *