Eighty years ago today, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Germany’s Chancellor. The old Marshal, a Junker through and through, did so unwillingly. He disliked “that Austrian corporal”—he seldom uttered Hitler’s name—from the moment they first met, in October 1931. The antipathy was mutual, with Hitler often referring to Hindenburg—in private—as “that old fool.” They belonged to two different worlds not only generationally and socially, but above all morally, and they both knew it.
Until the first few weeks of January 1933 Hindenburg repeatedly stated that he would never appoint Hitler as Chancellor, whatever the circumstances. As late as January 26 he declared to a group of friends and associates, “Gentlemen, I hope you will not hold me capable of appointing this Austrian corporal to be Reich Chancellor.” But Chancellor Franz von Papen—ostensibly a master manipulator—thought that if need be he could use Hitler as an expedient tool, a brute who would be kept on a short leash by the forces of the traditional Right.
Having patiently made his way into Hindenburg’s inner circle, Papen kept amusing and flattering the old man. By early 1932 he was considered not only trusted but indispensible. After the November 1932 election, which saw the Nazi vote drop from 37 to 32 percent, and after Papen was forced out of Chancellorship in December, Hindenburg’s importance in resolving the looming crisis grew out of all proportion to his declining faculties and deteriorating health. After another meeting with the Nazi leader, in the final weeks of 1932, Hindenburg declared dryly that “a cabinet led by Hitler would necessarily develop into a single-party dictatorship, with all the attendant consequences for an extreme aggravation of the conflicts within the German people.”
Papen begged to differ, however. He came to believe that he could build up Hitler yet control him from behind the scenes, bring him down at an opportune moment, and take the top post for himself yet again. He then persuaded Hindenburg’s influential son Oskar of the merits of his plan, and spent the last two weeks of January bullying Hindenburg into appointing Hitler Chancellor. On January 30, 1933—eighty years ago today—Hindenburg relented and swore Hitler in as Chancellor at 11 a.m. This was no Machtergreifung, no active seizure of power, no revolution. Hitler’s appointment was the fruit of Papen’s intrigue. Essentially it was the Machtübertragung, handover of power.
The rest, as they say, is history. Two hours after Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, Hitler merged the two offices to become Führer und Reichskanzler. Germany’s head of government became the leader of the Volk, thus removing any remaining checks and balances on his power. The story of Hitler’s rise is nevertheless filled with mystery. The lumpenproletarian failed artist from the periphery of Deutschtum, destined became one of the most powerful men in history, still haunts us, 123 years after his birth.
Hitler is also one of the most relentlessly destructive men in history. The enormity of his subsequent—for Nazi crimes were his own—was breathtaking, and the main victims of Hitler’s obsession with demographic engineering on a grand scale were Slavs and Jews. He could do so because a generation of young Germans had come of age devoid of old certainties, proving that man who does not believe in God will believe in anything. The Successor States’ culture after 1918 inculcated in the young the belief in a theoretically divinely sanctioned and structured sense of the world, but the Faith—thoroughly eroded well before 1914—was no longer present. This enabled Hitler to use the German nation and its highly developed state as a ready-made instrument of his Wille zur Macht.
The twentieth century had witnessed a departure in the conduct of many Europeans away from the concept of natural morality that provided a salutary restraint on their behavior before 1914. The rise of first Bolshevism, then Nazism, marked the end of an era that sought, over the previous century, to break away from the traumatic memory of the Terror in France, and insisted that physical elimination of an adversary was not a legitimate way of resolving a conflict. The decline of the religious impulse among most Europeans who mattered—terminal even before Sarajevo—created a gaping hole that was filled by ideologies uninhibited by religious restraints and motivated by the bloodlust that would make Robespierre recoil. Fore over a century between the Vendée and Lenin and Hitler, it was not mere ‘expediency’ which had prevented states from resorting to outright terrorism and mass extermination as a means to an end. The limitations on the behavior of states derived from an underlying consensus among their leaders that raison d’etat entailed continued membership of the community of civilized nations.
The decisive break came in the midst of the ideological mobilization for Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, with the decision to wage a war of extermination against the Slavs and to embark on the Final Solution. From September 1939 until June 1941 Germany arguably was waging a traditional European war (ein europäisches Normalkrieg) against Britain and France that only turned exterminationist with the Barbarossa. Until June 1941 the Wehrmacht swept across Europe like a well oiled machine, but the principles of warfare and the treatment of the vanquished did not appear to be fundamentally different from previous attempts at Continental hegemony by Napoleon, or the Kaiserreich. Against the Soviets, both ideological and racial enemies, no laws applied, however: the war aimed at destroying not simply the Soviet government and its ability to wage war, but the rule of law—any law—per se: “there was no true designation between civilian and combatant, Slav and Jew, and Communist and anticommunist. It is here that Hitler’s Kulturkampf (cultural war) burgeoned into a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation) to rid of these aforementioned enemies of the Volk…”
Except for his anti-Slav and anti-Jewish obsession, there was little guidance or consistency in Hitler’s ‘vision’ of the new Europe. It was an apocalyptic Utopia, improvised ad-hoc, which carried the seeds of its own destruction from the outset—and millions of decent, intelligent, educated people followed. This is why January 30 matters: that is when one uncouth autodidact and his followers, organized into a regime, started taking control over an ancient, civilized and powerful nation. Over the ensuing 13 years they devoted extraordinary resources to war and mass murder, destroying their own nation and the rest of Europe in the process.