The Collapse of Democracy in Germany 1930-33

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The Collapse of Democracy in Germany 1930-33
By March 1930 parliamentary government in Germany had broken down under the pressure of the economic depression following the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. The previous pattern of coalition cabinets and rule by consensus was destroyed. Muller’s Grand Coalition was fatally divided over the issues of public spending and unemployment benefit. The outcome of the Reichstag elections of 1930 and 1932 put paid to any chance of a return to parliamentary government.

  • In 1930 the four pro-Weimar parties (the SPD, DDP, Zentrum and DVP) won only 48% of the vote between them.

  • In July 1932 the pro-Weimar parties combined share of the vote fell to 40%.

  • By November 1932 the pro-Weimar parties share of the vote dropped to 38%.

In contrast the share of the anti-Weimar parties vote rose sharply.

  • In 1928 the KPD, DNVP and the Nazis had won 27% of the vote between them.

  • In 1930 the KPD, DNVP and the Nazis share of the vote rose to 38%.

  • In July 1932 the KPD, DNVP and the Nazis share of the vote rose to 57%.

Presidential Government

The collapse of Muller’s Grand Coalition marked the beginning of an era of extra-parliamentary government under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. The original purpose of Article 48 was to give the president special powers in times of national emergency. By mid-1930, under Bruning’s Chancellorship, Article 48 was being used to by-pass the authority of the Reichstag. This was the era of Presidential, authoritarian government.

President Hindenburg 1930-1933

Hindenburg’s role in the era of presidential government consisted of appointing and dismissing Chancellors and putting his name to decrees as and when was necessary. In exercising these powers he was strongly influenced by the group of advisors and courtiers who surrounded him. They included his son Oscar, an army officer in his 50s and his state secretary, Otto Meissner. Hindenburg’s most influential adviser was Kurt von Schleicher, a senior official in the Ministry of Defence and a Major-General in the German Army the Reichswehr.
Hindenburg favoured a more paternalist approach to government and had grown increasingly impatient with the party political wranglings of the Reichstag. When Muller resigned in March 1930, President Hindenburg took the advice of von Schleicher and appointed Bruning as Chancellor. Hindenburg and Bruning resorted to Article 48 of the Constitution, increasing the number of presidential decrees from 5 in 1930 to 109 in 1932. Meanwhile the Reichstag passed just 29 bills, nearly all of them minor. By June 1932, the Reichstag’s status had been reduced to that of a rump, its views neither listened to or sought.
Hindenburg’s role in the downfall of democracy

  • Hindenburg took a key role in the undermining of democracy in Germany by allowing the sharp increase in the number of Presidential decrees

  • He was increasingly manipulated by his entourage and failed to stop the underhand dealings of von Schleicher and von Papen.

However, Hindenburg played a significant role in opposing Hitler’s Chancellorship and delaying his appointment until it appeared that there was no other workable solution within the Reichstag.

Bruning’s Chancellorship March 1930 to May 1932

  • Bruning’s use of Article 48 to dissolve the Reichstag following the rejection of his finance bill led to the September 1930 elections which saw significant gains for the Nazis (107 seats) and an unworkable Reichstag.

  • Article 48 was increasingly used

  • His deflationary policies failed to solve the growing unemployment crisis which in turn meant that there was a growing army of disaffected Germans who were looking to the extremist parties for solutions to the economic and political crisis

  • He banned the SA in April 1932 in an attempt to reduce street violence

Von Papen’s Chancellorship June-December 1932

  • He lifted the ban on the SA in June 1932 and in the run up to the July 1932 Reichstag elections the street violence (passively aggressively) incited by the SA left over 100 people dead.

  • He used the street violence and chaos in Berlin as the excuse to stage a coup and remove the SPD dominated Prussian State government. By doing so he fatally weakened the SPD, the last pro-democratic party with any strength in number and possible influence in Germany. Hitler used the precedent set by von Papen to remove the powers of the State governments in the rest of Germany after he was appointed Chancellor.

  • In the Reichstag elections of July 1932 the Nazis gained 230 seats becoming the largest party by far in the Reichstag with 37.3% of the vote.

  • The election that von Papen called in November 1932 reinforced the political stalemate in the Reichstag. The Nazi vote fell to 33.1% and they gained 196 seats, however the KPD (Communist Party) share of the vote increased from 14.3% in July to 16.9% in November. The KPD won 100 seats and intensified fears of a Communist revolution in Germany thus forcing the conservative Junker elite to make compromises and renew negotiations with Hitler and the Nazis.

  • Von Papen gained Hindenburg’s favour and came forward with plans to make himself Germany’s dictator – he wished to suspend the Reichstag and use the army to suppress opposition from any quarter. This was a dangerous move as von Schleicher disagreed and used his influence within the army to force Hindenburg to dismiss von Papen.

  • It was von Papen’s determination to gain revenge on von Schleicher which led to renewed negotiations with Hitler and the Nazis, which ultimately gained Hitler the position of Chancellor on 30 January 1933.

  • Von Papen persuaded Hindenburg that Hitler and the Nazis could be “tamed”.

Von Schleicher’s Chancellorship December 1932 to January 1933

  • Von Schleicher tried to build a “diagonal front” which would represent both the political right (through Gregor Strasser of the Nazis, the Agrarian League and various industrialists) and the political left (through the trade unions). His scheme failed. The trade unions distrusted von Schleicher and the hoped-for-split in the Nazis did not take place as Strasser resigned from the party.

  • Hindenburg yet again turned to von Papen to form a viable government as it was clear threat von Schleicher commanded little support in the Reichstag.

  • Von Papen negotiated with Hitler and conceded the role of Chancellor to Hitler in a cabinet which was to be a coalition of the right with only 3 Nazis represented.


  • The German establishment of Prussian Junker elite, industrial capitalists and the army (represented by von Schleicher) destroyed the foundations of democracy by the use of presidential government from 1930 onwards.

  • The economic crisis sparked by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was the pretext for the decline in power of the Reichstag.

  • The destruction of democracy by the German establishment created a political vacuum that it could not itself fill.

  • Thus the German establishment, represented by Von Papen, attempted to use Hitler and the Nazi Party as the means to confer legitimacy for a new authoritarianism in Germany, which would ultimately secure a conservative power base for the Junkers, industrialists and the army.

  • In offering Hitler the Chancellorship the German establishment legitimised the Nazi Party and gave the keys of power to Hitler himself.

Ultimately, the Nazis were brought into power in January 1933 by a social class which believed that it could use their organisation and electoral success to perpetuate its own rule. Hindenburg, von Papen and other Junker elite had come to rely on the Nazis because of the disintegration of the democratic system which they had engineered from 1930 onwards. The aim of the Junkers was the destruction of the hated Weimar Republic, the isolation of the despised SPD and the crushing of socialism and communism in Germany.

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