In January 1933 the German Weimar Republic and the Nazi Party are both in trouble. The republic, aptly characterized as a “democracy without democrats,” has been dysfunctional for at least three years. Its constitution provides for proportional representation in the Reichstag, the German parliament, and political parties range from the Communists on the extreme left to the Nazis on the extreme right. Each controls at least a few seats in the Reichstag. No party comes close to commanding a majority. As a result, the government is based upon fragile coalitions whose brief lifespans repeatedly force new elections—there were two in 1932 alone—and the appointment of a new chancellor, as Germany calls its head of government, on a revolving-door basis. The republic’s stability is provided mainly by its president and head of state, former field marshal Paul von Hindenburg, a revered but aging hero of the Great War.
The Nazi Party, which reached its peak of 37 percent of the vote in July 1932, has lost ground. In the next election, four months later, the Nazis experienced their first electoral decline, to 33 percent. The party still has enough strength to get important cabinet posts in any coalition government, but its leader, Adolf Hitler, refuses to accept any post save that of chancellor. Given the discouraging trend of election outcomes, a chancellorship for Hitler seems increasingly unrealistic, particularly since Hindenburg detests Hitler and has twice refused to consider him for the post.
Along comes former chancellor Baron Franz von Papen, who, while in office, did all he could to tilt the government rightward, including lifting a ban on the Sturmabteilung, or SA—the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing. Papen has Hinden-burg’s ear, giving him an unusual degree of personal influence. Papen also detests the current chancellor, former general Kurt von Schleicher, who succeeded him on January 2, 1932. Seeking to ruin Schleicher, in early January 1933 Papen suggests he and Hitler meet. The two hatch a plan to make Hitler chancellor. Hitler sees the chancellorship as a major step toward his goal of complete power over Germany. Papen foolishly believes that Hitler will look to him as a guide, thus expanding his own political influence.
The plot’s success depends on removing Schleicher as chancellor. Schleicher has sought in vain to create a successful coalition government and has alienated Hindenburg, who now disapproves of Schleicher both personally and for failing to stabilize the government. Hindenburg listens with favor when Papen brings news of a new coalition allying Hitler’s Nazi Party and the German National People’s Party, led by industrialist Alfred Hugenberg. Papen proposes to install Hitler as chancellor, with himself as vice chancellor. But Hindenburg, despite misgivings about Schleicher, continues to view Hitler as unacceptable. The old field marshal adheres to his view that Hitler at best might deserve a cabinet position as the minister of posts. As for Papen, Hindenburg resents what he regards as a transparent attempt at manipulation. For a third time, Hindenburg rebuffs Hitler’s bid to become chancellor, leaving Schleicher in office.
The above scenario is historically accurate in several respects. Thanks to its unwieldy constitution and a weak commitment to self-preservation, the Weimar Republic was an unworkable entity that invited political intrigue. The Nazis’ portion of the vote did drop in four short months from 37 to 33 percent, with auguries of further decline. And Papen did approach Hitler with a plan to achieve power together.
The chief departure from history is Hindenburg’s rejection of Papen’s proposal. Historically, Hindenburg accepted the arrangement, so that on January 30, 1933, Hitler became chancellor. Papen became vice chancellor, with Hugenberg serving as the minister of economy. Hindenburg brought Hitler to power in the belief that a coalition between two conservative parties—the charismatic Nazi Party and the respectable German National People’s Party—could give Germany some much-needed stability and hold at bay the left-leaning Social Democratic and Communist Parties, with Papen poised to check Hitler’s extremist tendencies. Schleicher knew his chancellorship was doomed. Fearing that his rival Papen might somehow succeed him, he, too, endorsed Hitler as the next chancellor.
Hitler then lavishly used emergency powers, intimidation, and violence to secure a degree of control his predecessors had never come close to achieving. And upon Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, he assumed the presidency, thereby making himself the führer who would place Germany on the road to world war. What would have happened if Kurt von Schleicher had remained chancellor? In Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power, distinguished historian Henry Ashby Turner Jr. speculates that given the demonstrated impossibility of conservatives achieving stability in any other way, Schleicher—who had already urged Hindenburg to permit a military dictatorship—most likely would have created a military regime. Turner says a military government would have assiduously avoided another two-front war and done nothing to alienate the French or the British.
Such a regime would have confined its territorial ambitions to the recovery of the Polish Corridor, which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The result would have been a limited German-Polish conflict, not a general European war. And, in any event, Adolf Hitler would have become a mere footnote in history.
Turner leaves it at that. But what would Hitler’s specific fate have been? It is not difficult to frame a likely outcome. Prominent Nazis would have looked askance at Hitler’s all-or-nothing stance on the chancellorship. The party leadership would have divided sharply, with Hitler loyalists arrayed against a growing number of dissidents. Even-tually it would have become obvious, even to Hitler, that he would never achieve the chancellorship, and that his party was fragmenting into factions. His dreams of ultimate power exploded, Hitler would most likely have made good on a nihilistic vow. “If the party falls apart,” he had told Joseph Goebbels, his future propaganda minister, in December 1942 “I’ll finish myself off with a pistol within three minutes.”