From March 1930 until January 1933, three successive chancellors – Heinrich Brüning, Franz von Papen, and Kurt von Schleicher – maneuvered around paralyzed parliaments by using presidential emergency powers to issue laws by decree and by repeatedly dissolving the Reichstag to call for new elections. Until the middle of 1932, when the economy reached its nadir, each new election only served to strengthen the extremes. Even after losing more than 2 million votes in the Reichstag election of November 1932, the Nazis still remained the strongest party, commanding more than a third of the 584 seats.
Despite this, they still lacked a majority in parliament. Behind closed doors, there was talk of dismissing parliament temporarily – or even permanently – or of restoring the monarchy. These ideas, however, failed to win the support of President Hindenburg (1847-1934). Although he was a monarchist at heart, the aged World War I field marshal felt obliged to respect the republican constitution, at least formally. He also feared the civil unrest that a coup could trigger.
In January 1933, one of Hitler’s rivals, former chancellor Franz von Papen (1879-1969), a conservative Catholic aristocrat, stepped in and brokered a deal behind the scenes – Hitler would become chancellor and he himself would become vice chancellor. Papen then helped assemble a cabinet of ministers acceptable to both Hitler and Hindenburg. Lacking any base of support in the newly elected Reichstag, which was set to convene shortly, Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher acknowledged defeat and resigned his post on January 28, 1933. Two days later, Hitler was legally appointed chancellor.
In full command of his own party, the new chancellor also benefitted from an alliance with the traditionally conservative German National People’s Party [Deutschnationale Volkspartei or DNVP]. This union gave him a parliamentary base of just over forty percent of the seats in the Reichstag. It is important to note that only two of Hitler’s ten original cabinet members – Wilhelm Frick and Hermann Göring – were National Socialists; the rest were conservative nationalists or non-party experts. Vice Chancellor Papen thought that the composition of Hitler’s cabinet (and his own close ties to Hindenburg) would allow him to contain Hitler, a figure who had mobilized the masses far more effectively than traditional members of the political right.
The real Nazi revolution occurred only after Hitler was in office; it came as he and the members of his inner circle freed themselves from the political and constitutional constraints that had shackled their predecessors. Establishing a dictatorship in stages, they used their growing power to realize a significant portion of their racial and geopolitical agenda. But if their approach appeared conservative, their goals were anything but.