Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) appointment as Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933, was neither accidental nor inevitable; rather, it was a testimony to the ability of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party [Nationalsozialistischen Deutschen Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP] to successfully exploit basic weaknesses in the Weimar Republic to gain significant popular support. Without unexpected help from his political rivals, however, Hitler could have never become chancellor legally – or perhaps even at all.
Back in September 1930, the Nazi Party had captured 18.3 percent of the vote in a national election, gaining the second largest number of seats in the Reichstag, the lower house of the German parliament. Up to that point, political opponents and observers had mostly viewed National Socialism as a movement of roughnecks and alienated elements who sought to overthrow the republic by force – something that Hitler, in fact, had tried and failed to do in his putsch attempt in November 1923. By the late 1920s, however, Nazi officials and local activists working within the system had built up an increasingly effective organizational base throughout much of Germany and had discovered new – and legal – ways to appeal to different social strata. During the Great Depression, the Nazis parlayed Hitler’s charisma, massive unemployment, and middle- and upper-class fears of Communism and Socialism into a considerable increase in popular support.
These years saw the Nazis and the Communists embroiled in a bitter struggle in the Reichstag, where both tried to prevent the passage of government measures at every turn. At the same time, their respective paramilitary forces, the Sturmabteilung [Storm Detachment, also known as the SA or the Brownshirts] and the Rotfrontkämpferbund [Red Front Fighters’ League] battled each other (and the Social Democratic-oriented Reichsbanner organization) in the streets and beer halls of towns and cities throughout the country. Economic misery, political paralysis, and the breakdown of law and order all converged, with each exacerbating the others. Widespread doubts about Germany’s parliamentary system, fostered by Germany’s illiberal nineteenth-century political traditions, grew even stronger.
Hitler’s extreme racial ideology (which had been laid bare in Mein Kampf), his 1924 conviction for treason, his acquisition of German citizenship relatively late in life (in 1932), and his personal and political rigidity placed him far outside the realm of “normal” in national politics. But he was able to connect with a significant segment of German voters – for example, in the presidential election held in the spring of 1932, Hitler received 13.4 million votes (to incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg’s 19.4 million) in the second ballot on April 10, 1932.