We're often told that Adolf Hitler was Fuhrer of Germany, but how did he do it? In fact, like most things he did, Hitler made practical use of a 'crisis', and turned it to his favour.
There was much to be done after Hitler's release from prison in December 1924. By 1928, he had rebuilt the party and taken advantage of certain political loopholes to ensure that his party retained a presence in the minds of the German electorate. Yet, in spite of his efforts, by May of that year the Nazis polled only 810,000 votes; barely 2.6% of the population and only 12 Reichstag seats. This bare existence in the state's democracy seemed to be permanent with the increased stabilisation of the Weimar Republic and the reduction in political belligerence within the country. To many in the country Hitler's party were a group of fanatics, barely registering on the political spectrum and absent from the majority of the political debates of the day. Then, on a precipitous day on 24th October 1929, everything changed.
The Wall Street Crash ruptured the financial structures of several of the world's countries, not least because in the cash-strapped post-war economies, loans were virtually the sole measure by which an upturn in fortunes could be paid for. The Weimar government was floating on countless loands from US lenders, and the short version of the story goes that upon the Crash, they sought their money back. With no discernible way to pay these loans, the government's economic stability rapidly deteriorated, and the millions of Germans who had depended upon jobs floated by these very loans suffered as a result. The Crash impacted billions of people in total, and was felt all across the world, but in Germany's fledgling democratic experiment, the impact was arguably felt most of all.
In 1930, barely 11 months after the Crash, the Nazis won 18% of the vote, having taken advantage of the crisis brought on by the Great Depression, German skepticism with parliamentary republicanism, and a general discontent with the German government. Now a minority after the grand coalition had collapsed, the Centre Party's hold on power was waning, and its Chancellor Heinrich Bruning was forced to rule mostly by presidential decree. Seeing the power thus vested in the president to actually empower representative governments, we shouldn't be surprised to learn that Hitler went for that office in 1932 amidst a groundswell of support.
Yet, Hitler actually lost the 1932 German Presidential Election to Paul von Hindenburg, the stalwart German president who had been in office since 1925. Unperturbed, Hitler sought the other significant political office open to him - Chancellor. In this he was far more successful, because he was able to use the fact that Germany was so politically divided to his advantage. The loss in the presidential campaign actually helped Hitler, because it had the effect of so raising his political profile even in defeat.
With effective government still crumbling, and two elections in 1932 failing to generate any majority, supporters of Hitler wrote to Hindenburg urging him to make this vibrant political upstart Chancellor of an independent movement which would in time bring all strands of the country together. Thus brought into this government in January 1933, Hitler and the other allies he could count in Cabinet - including Herman Goering as Minister for the Interior in Prussia - began to work actively against democracy.
Calling on Hindenburg to dissolve Parliament again, a suspicious Reichstag fire in late February enabled Hitler to suspend human rights and implement detention without trial with the use of the Reichstag Fire Decree of February 27th 1933. Hitler's Cabinet then passed a law which would free them from consulting the Reichstag for four years, the Enabling Act, in late March. Article 1 of the Reichstag Fire Decree put it that:
Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of (opinion) expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
Taking advantage of the perceived German population's fear of a Communist takeover, Hitler posed as the champion of the people's rights and freedoms even while he and his party went out of their way to suppress them. In early March it had been announced by Goering, who as Minister for the Interior in Prussia had charge of the Prussian police, that:
In keeping with the purpose and aim of the decree the additional measures … will be directed against the Communists in the first instance, but then also against those who co-operate with the Communists and who support or encourage their criminal aims… I would point out that any necessary measures against members or establishments of other than Communist, anarchist or Social Democratic parties can only be justified by the decree … if they serve to help the defense against such Communist activities in the widest sense.
Then, in a following election, the Nazis acquired 43% of the vote. The success was astounding, but it still was critically short of the majority that was needed. It had been an eventful two months since Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, but the work needed to appoint the Nazis and Hitler at the top of the state's authority and outside of its legal structures still had yet to be done.
Over the following year then, Hitler intimidated his political opponents into exile or disbandment, used violence to eliminate rivals or threats to his power, and manipulated the media to achieve an even greater hold over the state's hearts and minds. On 1st August 1934, the Reichstag passed the 'Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich', which ruled that upon the death of the President, his powers and office would be merged with that of the Chancellor. The next day, Hindenburg was dead. The offices of Chancellor and President died with him, as Hitler was no longer defined by German political law, for he had created his own. He was now and would be known to posterity, as Fuhrer.
Just as he had said he would do, Hitler used the very democracy that he despised to bring he and his party to power legally, only to do away with that very regime as soon as it was legislatively possible. Rather than simply buldoze the German Weimar Constitution and install his own regime as soon as he became Chancellor, Hitler moved with a political patience and cunning which confounded his opponents and brought him great acclaim. Where success was not legally forthcoming, only then did Hitler dispense with legalities, always explaining this move by reasoning that the state of affairs justified the means. The ultimate question, or perhaps the ultimate judgement upon the people that participated in this process, was that the Germans he resonated with, and even those he did not resonate with, failed to stop him. They allowed, in effect, for Hitler to destroy the very constitution which held him back.
After this, the Fuhrer would not stopped by any law, and he would be free to fulfill the plan and vision he had always had for Germany's Third Reich.