So, I’ve just completed a week of teaching back in the classroom in the “brave new world” of social distancing. But rather than discuss this experience – both the positives (teaching engaged students again) and the negatives (having to wear a visor whilst doing so!) – I thought I would instead dive into a topic that I am currently covering with my second year A-level History group: the Nazi consolidation (or should that be “seizure”) of power between 1933-34.
This week we consolidated the information from the lock-down period in the form of this question: what was the position of Hitler in March 1933? This month is quite an important one due to it providing a break between the old Weimar republic and the rapid growth of Nazi power. After March 1933, there was minimal opposition to Hitler’s dictatorial control.
At the start of the month a national election was held (the third one in under 12 months), in which Hitler attempted to obtain a majority in the Reichstag. This majority – which had proved impossible throughout the Weimar years – would grant him control to push through whatever laws he chose. However, despite the events of February – in which the Reichstag building caught fire, thereby leading to a crack down on the rival Communist party – the Nazis still failed in this quest to obtain more than 50% (ending up just shy of 44%).
Hitler, then, need to up the ante in order to obtain full control. Preparations were put in place to create a great spectacle that would put the minds of all Germans at rest. This culminated in the so-called ‘Day of Potsdam’ in which the Nazi propaganda machine went into over-drive in promoting the strength and unity of Hitler alongside the old titans of German military greatness, notably President Hindenburg and other leading generals (including the son of the former Kaiser). Hitler may have been the “old corporal” and political outsider, but his aim of making Germany great again chimed in perfectly with the old order and elites.
The journalist Douglas Reed witnessed the spectacle at Potsdam, and later had his writings published in the 1938 book Insanity Fair:
I looked about me curiously on this fitfully sunny day, 21 March 1933. The bells of Potsdam were clanging, the flags waving, and an enormous concourse had come out.
Hindenburg came, stepped out of his car, looked slowly around and stiffened as he saw the soldiers. That always galvanised him into life. Here were no perplexing politicians, but ranks of field-greys, entirely immobile save for their heads, which turned like the leaves of a book as he went past… one hand rested on his sword and with the other he raised the field-marshal’s baton in salute.
Sinking his head in humility, Hitler met him. Hitler, whose Goebbels had derided Hindenburg’s senility by asking, “Is Hindenburg still alive?” Now little Goebbels sat in hushed reverence inside the Church with the other members of the Cabinet, waiting to see the marriage of the old and the new Germany.
Goring, too, stood at the door of the Church, monumental in morning clothes. Nearby was a wooden pen, reserved for the General-hood. Here were the representatives of the spirit of Potsdam, of the doctrine that Germany has the divine right to expand by force of arms. For years these men had been figures of fun in a disillusioned Germany; now they had come into their own right.
What was this all about, this pilgrimage to Potsdam?
Hindenburg was neither quite clear what he had done nor whether he had done right. In the misty recesses of his darkling mind the question still prompted itself whether by making Hitler Chancellor in January and by approving the rape of the Constitution in February he had really honoured his oath ‘to do justice to all men’. In March Hitler had found a way to allay his doubts, one of those ceremonies of symbolic patriotism so dear to the German mind.
This was the meaning of the Potsdam ceremony. Before the new Reichstag…met, a dedicatory service was to be held in the Garrison Church, the new regime was to be pledged to “the spirit of Potsdam”, and Hindenburg and Hitler were to shake hands over the tomb of Frederick the Great. The torch of German ambitions for world power was being passed on, from Field-Marshall to Bohemian corporal.
As he entered the Church, sixty-seven years after his first visit, tears filled Hindenburg’s eyes as she saw around him all the symbols of the old martial Germany. He nodded ponderous approval when Hitler said, thanks to him, “the marriage has been consummated between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength.”
Then came the famous handclasp, which meant, to Germans, that the years between 1918 and 1933 had been blotted out of the German history books, that Hindenburg had handed over his command to Hitler.
Such writing highlights the impact of the Nazi propaganda machine, achieving the aim of uniting the new of the Nazis with the old of German military greatness. I particularly like the comment about how the years of 1918 to 1933 – the Weimar Republic years – had been wiped out.
However, just how balanced was the writer, Douglas Reed? A short look online will reveal that he was a firm supporter of Nazism, perhaps caused in part by his hatred of Communism. The book, being published in 1938, could be seen as both an apology and celebration: apology for Nazi excesses, but a clear celebration in the rise of Germany to great power within 5 years. Either way, it is clear that he intention was to “win over” a western audience to Nazi thinking, and such an argument found supporters within Britain during this period (especially with the big fear not being Hitler but rather Stalin).
Even if we deem Reed a Nazi-apologist and “yes-man”, this does not mean that we should completely ignore the significance of the ‘Day of Potsdam’. In order to understand its impact, we are required to make sense of the historical context and what happened next. This event was held on 21 March 1933, and just two days in the opening of the Reichstag session the Enabling Act was voted in, being signed by Hindenburg later that day. This Enabling Act provided Hitler with full powers in order to forge his dictatorship; what followed was the banning or control of all possible rivals, including opposing political parties, trade unions, the press and radio, and civil service. Perhaps the ‘Day of Potstam’ was the day in which Hindenburg himself was finally convinced of the need of Hitler, thereby leading him to pass on his presidential powers to the Chancellor.