Adolf Hitler’s capture and destruction of the fragile Weimar Republic is a cautionary tale without rival. To tell the story in his new book, Takeover, the historian Timothy Ryback has narrowed the action to the six months leading up to Hitler’s elevation to national leadership. He relies heavily on newspaper reports, diaries, and memoirs to recount in vivid detail how the infighting between cocky, short-sighted members of the Prussian establishment eventually opened the door to the Nazi leader. But also ever-present in Ryback’s account is the role of chance—unplanned encounters, missed opportunities, hidden resentments. Conditions were ripe for this political catastrophe, but it wasn’t inevitable.

In the Reichstag elections of July 31, 1932, the Nazis increased their share of the vote from 18 to 37 percent, securing 230 of the 600 seats. Hitler believed that General Paul von Hindenburg, the German president, would be obligated to appoint him Reichskanzler. General Kurt von Schleicher, the minister of defense and Hindenburg’s most trusted confederate, encouraged him in this conviction. And while Hitler despised the “von-von-vons” who dominated the Weimar government as they had the previous imperial regime, the support of Berlin’s kingmaker flattered him. Schleicher did not spell out his intentions—to control Hitler and use his 400,000-strong Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) as a counter force to the Communists, who had also gained seats in the election, and their Red Front fighters.

But the 84-year-old Hindenburg refused to play along. He considered Hitler fit only to be postmaster. With Hitler en route from Munich to claim his prize, Schleicher and Franz von Papen, the hapless politician who had been installed as chancellor in June 1932, agreed to tell Hitler that he must serve as vice chancellor for a time, under Papen, to gain Hindenburg’s confidence.

“Hitler was staggered. The Nazis were being fobbed off,” Ryback quotes from the memoir of John Wheeler-Bennett, a British government adviser. In his diary of the same day, August 13, Joseph Goebbels reported that Hitler now suspected that Schleicher had lured him to Berlin only to discredit him in the eyes of his followers and the public. A phone call late in the afternoon, summoning Hitler to meet Hindenburg, temporarily reignited Nazi hopes.

During a brief audience, the pre-sident didn’t even ask his guests—Hitler, associate Wilhelm Frick, and SA chief Ernst Röhm—to sit down. A Hindenburg aide, Otto Meissner, described how the old fighter stood leaning on his walking stick, “a veritable monument of a man, towering over them by a full head and a half.” When Hitler reiterated his refusal to participate in a new government unless he was head of it, Hindenburg responded crisply, “Nein.” He castigated the Nazis for their intolerance and violence, warning them that SA members would be prosecuted for any acts of terror, including the murder of a Communist miner in Potempa in Upper Silesia four nights earlier. Hitler, famous for verbosity, was dismissed before he could get a word in edgewise.

The presidential dressing down in August could have marked the end of Hitler’s political ascent. The Nazi’s July surge, Ryback writes, “had been driven primarily by independent voters who had initially seen Hitler as a bulwark against the radical left and assumed he would enter into a coalition with centrist conservative parties, bringing stability to years of political chaos.” Hitler not only demanded full power for himself, but he also sent an incendiary telegram to the five Potempa killers when they were found guilty and slated to be executed. “My comrades!” he declared. “In the face of this monstrous blood sentence, I feel bound to you in eternal loyalty.” Voters punished Hitler in the polls on November 6, in another Reichstag election, with the Nazis losing 34 seats. In December, in a local election in the state of Thuringia, voters again moved toward the center, cutting the Nazi’s support by nearly a quarter. The party was nearly bankrupt by this point.

The documentarian Leni Riefenstahl was at the post-election debrief that Hitler organized at the Sterneckerbräu beer hall in Munich and was surprised to hear him speaking as if he had won. Ryback portrays Hitler as possessing a nature resilient to adversity: “Whether that was as a result of some form of emotional or psychological imbalance that inclined him toward the delusional, or a fierce, even ruthless determination…is not clear.”

Hitler remained a fixed point while the Prussian politicians bobbed and weaved. Papen extended an olive branch after the November election, hoping to convince the Nazi leader to take a cabinet post. That offer rebuffed, Papen lacked a ruling majority and so submitted his resignation.

Many Germans ridiculed Papen—seen always in a top hat, carrying a walking stick—but Hindenburg thought him well-meaning and made him caretaker chancellor until a replacement could be named. Next, the belligerently nationalist Alfred Hugenberg, a Hitler antagonist who controlled 1,600 newspapers across Germany and bankrolled the German National People’s Party, urged Hindenburg to continue using his emergency powers to rule. But the upright president, determined to return the country to constitutional order, preferred to seek a coalition of conservative parties. Once more Hitler was summoned, and once more—despite his fading fortunes—he insisted to the president he would have the chancellorship or nothing. At this juncture, Schleicher told Hindenburg that it was he who must assume the top job, because he had a brilliant strategy. As chancellor, Schleicher intended to split the Nazi movement by recruiting Gregor Strasser—a moderate Hitler deputy disdainful of the SA—as vice chancellor.

At first Hitler was enraged by Strasser’s willingness to serve. But Frick persuaded him that Strasser, in joining the Schleicher cabinet, could be a foothold to power for the Nazis. In one of the most poignant “what-could-have-been” incidents in a book full of them, Frick vainly scoured Berlin for Strasser, intending to bring him to Hitler’s suite at the Hotel Kaiserhof for a reconciliation meeting. Strasser had checked out of his hotel. He later caught a train for Munich, collected his wife and two sons, and departed for Italy for a two-week holiday respite. Hitler was never willing to repair the breach, and Strasser chose to retreat from politics rather than go against him. (Strasser was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler solidified his grip on power the following year.)

Enter Kurt Baron von Schröder, a financier and industrialist, who in the first week of January 1933 convinced Papen to go behind Schleicher’s back and meet with Hitler. He spoke for many business interests that were fed up with political instability and looking for a strong leader.

When news of the Papen-Hitler summit at Schröder’s Cologne villa leaked, the enmity between Schleicher and his former ally Papen was sealed. At the same time, Hindenburg’s patience with Schleicher ran out. Scuttlebutt in Berlin had it that the old man was exhausted and perhaps suffering from dementia. But Ryback details the precipitate causes of Schleicher’s fall from grace. Hindenburg heard that his former protégé had been saying that the president’s unimpressive son Oskar owed his career solely to being a member of Haus Hindenburg. Also, the proud old general resented how Schleicher, as chancellor, had failed to quash a scandal over the Osthilfe—a government farm-aid program that was seemingly enriching landowners in East Prussia, including many close Hindenburg neighbors and pals.

The nationalist newspaper owner Hugenburg, who learned that the Nazis had found sound financial footing once more, signaled his willingness to join a cabinet under Hitler, bringing with him his Reichstag voting block of 51 seats. Papen then knew his only chance of staying in government was to stick with Hitler. But loyalists to the chancellor and former Hindenburg intimate Schleicher leaked to the press that reappointing Papen chancellor could result in a “crisis” for Hindenberg. Enraged by this threat, Hindenberg dismissed Schleicher the next week. Then, very reluctantly, on Papen’s urging, he appointed the hated Hitler chancellor, with Papen as his vice chancellor. Dismantlement of the republic ensued.

The specter of Weimar haunts us still. We can marvel from a distance at how small decisions—made in the moment, in response to immediate circumstances—cascaded into disaster. We can point out that peril awaits a leadership class willing to align itself with political extremists, seeking to counter forces which it perceive to be more unsavory. The lessons to be gleaned from this are eternal.

Photo: AP Photo/File

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