Back in the summer I made the decision to teach an AQA A-level History module ‘Germany 1918-1945’. It is a classic period for students of history, what with the end of the First World War, the problems of the Weimar Republic (hyperinflation, extremist plots, etc), the collapse of democracy, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and then the steps taken into the Second World War. It is a period that I’ve covered in different guises before, such as in the excellent (and now sadly defunct) AQA module ‘Hitler, Anti-Semitism, and the German People’, in GCSE modules, and in the annoying OCR module ‘Germany 1918-1963’ (annoying because it marched on past 1945 to cover the rather tedious and dull domestic policies of Adenhauer’s governments). So, picking this module felt a bit like coming home. And as such, since the summer I’ve been returning to old materials, updating PowerPoints, and digging into more history.
Part of this digging has included more reading on Weimar Germany and the Nazis, including Peter Longerich’s The Unwritten Order (based on a report brought into being to highlight the erroneous views of Holocaust denier David Irving), Rupert Matthews’ Hitler: Military Commander (to find out more on the military operations), and even Art Speigelman’s excellent Maus (which provides an account of the Holocaust in graphic novel form). The deeper you dig, the more shocking finds and interesting pieces are revealed.
Part of this digging has brought me to re-engage in Weimar election statistics, which has meant that I’ve had to know my DNVP’s from my DVP’s. The main narrative of the federal elections held in Germany in the 1920s into the early 1930s is to highlight the rise of the Nazi Party: from 2.6% of the vote in 1928 to become the largest party in Germany by 1932. How this happened is a much returned to debate, including factors such as Hitler’s charisma, the role of propaganda, the might of the SA “toughs”, and the most important of all: the impact of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression. So, we trace the results as they rise and rise, until when in 1933 Hitler is appointed Chancellor and is able to destroy democracy completely. He achieves this by use of the Enabling Act: the granting of dictatorial powers that literally allows him to banish all other opposing political parties (including other areas of possible dissent, including the media and trade unions). With President Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler merges the offices of President and Chancellor to become the Fuhrer. From this point forward, until defeat in war in 1945, Hitler rules as dictator.
However, the role of elections continued onwards during the 1930s:
- November 1933
- March 1936
- April 1938
The last “free” election could be said to have been the March 1933 Reichstag election. However, by this point Hitler was already establishing his dictatorship, utilising the opportunity of the Reichstag fire to become more powerful. Meanwhile his SA stormtroopers were busy making sure political opponents were cowered; they ‘monitored’ voting in many districts, ensuring that the result they received was the “right” one.
The banning of all political parties with the Enabling Act made the actual meaning of any future election essentially pointless: there was to be only one party, and one party only. However, Hitler saw the value in holding elections: they demonstrated to the world just how in love the German people were with National Socialism. The results were used as expressed mandates in order to push forward with a new policy (such as the union with Austria in 1938).
The first “unfree” election was that in November 1933; a voter could choose from a single list containing Nazi nominees. However, at this point Hitler was not yet the Fuhrer: he would have to wait until the summer of 1934 for the death of President Hindenburg. Perhaps this explains how the Nazis achieved “only” 92% of the vote; 3.3 million voters submitted invalid ballots. This could be argued in the electorate expressing their disgust with Hitler, without actually voicing their concerns in public (which could result in detainment in a “re-education centre”). Of greater importance was the decision to hold a separate referendum on the same day as the Reichstag elections; Hitler wanted to obtain a mandate from the people on pulling Germany out of the League of Nations. Considering how poorly the League had treated Germany since the Treaty of Versailles (such as banning Germany from initially joining) Hitler was no doubt onto a sure winner.
The next vote in March 1936 saw the party-list continue onwards, alongside a referendum on the question as to whether or not voters agreed with Hitler’s re-militarisation of the Rhineland. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Rhineland was to be void of German military presence, in order to provide the French greater security (although the French took advantage of this situation by occupying the nearby Ruhr region in 1923, which led in turn to hyperinflation). In total, 99% of the electorate agreed with Hitler, with the invalid votes dropping from over 5 million to almost half a million. The explanation given for this drop is in the Nazi propaganda machine winning over more hearts on minds, the success of Hitler’s policies up to 1936 (ripping up the hated Versailles treaty and bringing respect back to Germany once more), and perhaps in the removal from the voting registers of expected dissidents (such as political opponents and Jews, who by this time had their citizenship destroyed).
Hitler saluted on announcing the Anschluss in 1938
The 1938 elections saw another referendum, on the issue of the union with Austria. This was, as expected, another success for the Nazi Party, with 99% voting ‘Yes’. And, as expected, the invalid votes continued to drop. By this point Hitler and the Nazis had expanded their control over society and politics, and were on the verge of expanding further into eastern Europe to bring about the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.
The sham of the Reichstag continued to meet on into 1942, but after the outbreak of war it did so infrequently. No further elections were held, with Hitler postponing the next election until after the war (with a similar decision taken in Britain). By the time of war Hitler no longer needed the excuse of the Reichstag to portray himself to the world; by 1942 he was at war with most of the world and could only rely on a military solution. In this, he failed. Although peace came in 1945, there was not another nation-wide election in all of Germany – East and West – until 1990. It could be said that the democratic experiment failed in Weimar Germany, however, the roots were placed and came to fruition with the FDR in the post-war period and then in the united Germany in the 1990s.