Electing Fascism: The German Referendum of 1934


The Reich Main Security Office, Prinz-Albrecht-Straße No.8 in 1933. / German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Hitler used the referendum to legitimize his move to take the title Führer und Reichskanzler (Führer and Chancellor).


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Introduction and Background

A referendum on merging the posts of Chancellor and President was held in Germany on 19 August 1934,[1] seventeen days after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg. The leadership of Nazi Germany sought to gain approval for Adolf Hitler’s assumption of supreme power. The referendum was associated with widespread intimidation of voters, and Hitler used the resultant large “yes” vote to claim public support for his activities as the de factohead of state of Germany. In fact, he had assumed these offices and powers immediately upon Hindenburg’s death and used the referendum to legitimise that move and taken the title Führer und Reichskanzler (Führer and Chancellor).

Banner with the campaign message “Yes to the Führer!” / Wikimedia Commons

Hitler had known as early as April 1934 that Hindenburg would likely be dead before the year was out. He spent much of the spring and summer working to get the armed forces to support him as Hindenburg’s successor.[2] Hitler was well aware that with the passage of the Enabling Act and the banning of all parties other than the Nazis a year earlier, Hindenburg was the only check on his power.

The fact that Hindenburg was the only check on Hitler’s power was brought home earlier in 1934. In the wake of escalating Nazi excesses, Hindenburg threatened to sack Hitler and to declare martial law unless Hitler took immediate steps to end the tension. Hitler responded by ordering the Night of the Long Knives, in which several SA leaders, most notably Ernst Röhm, were murdered along with several of Hitler’s other past rivals.[2][3]

On 1 August, with Hindenburg’s death imminent, Hitler had the cabinet pass the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich”, which merged the offices of president (head of state) and chancellor (head of government) under the title of Leader and Chancellor (Führer und Reichskanzler).[4] Hindenburg died the following day, and two hours later, Hitler issued a decree announcing that in accordance with the new law, he had assumed the president’s powers.[2] He publicly argued that the presidency had become so linked with Hindenburg that the title should not be used again.[3]

Immediately after Hindenburg’s death on 2 August, defence minister and commander-in-chief Werner von Blomberg ordered all members of the Reichswehr (armed forces) to take an oath to the Führer.[5]

When Hindenburg dictated his testament in May, he included as his “last wish” for Hitler to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy. His son, Oskar von Hindenburg, passed the testament on to Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, who, in turn, gave it to Hitler on 14 August. The next day, 15 August, Hitler had it published without any indication of Hindenburg’s “last wish”.[5]

Conduct

The Law on the Head of State of the German Reich of August 1. / Wikimedia Commons

This was wording of the referendum question: The office of the President of the Reich is unified with the office of the Chancellor. Consequently all former powers of the President of the Reich are demised to the Führer and Chancellor of the Reich Adolf Hitler. He himself nominates his substitute. Do you, German man and German woman, approve of this regulation provided by this Law?[6]

The government used widespread intimidation and electoral fraud to secure a large “yes” vote. This included stationing storm troopers at polling stations and forcing clubs and societies to march to polling stations escorted by Nazi storm troopers and then to vote in public. In some places, polling booths were removed, or banners reading “only traitors enter here” hung over the entrances to discourage secret voting. In addition, many ballot papers were premarked with “yes” votes, spoiled ballot papers were frequently counted as having been “yes” votes and many “no” votes were recorded to have been in favour of the referendum question. The extent of the fraud meant that in some areas, the number of votes recorded to have been cast was greater than the number of people able to vote.[7]

However, the Nazis also made little effort to prevent either the casting or tabulation of negative or invalid votes in districts that were known to have large populations of Jews, Poles and other ethnic minorities. As was the case in the November 1933 elections, the first held after the Nazis seized full power, the leadership considered the expected unfavourable results in such areas to be useful in their propaganda as proof of disloyalty to the Reich.

The relative lack of support in Hamburg in 1933 had prompted Hitler to declare a national holiday on 17 August 1934 so that he could address the German people directly over the 4.3 million registered radio sets.[8]

The referendum itself, as well as all efforts to make Hitler head of state, violated the Enabling Act. Although it gave Hitler the right to pass laws that were contrary to the constitution, it stated that the president’s powers were to remain “undisturbed”, which has long been interpreted to forbid any attempt to tamper with the presidency. The constitution had also previously been amended in 1932 to make the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, first in the line of succession to the presidency and even then only on an interim basis until fresh elections.[2]

Results

Support for merging the offices of president and chancellor was greatest in East Prussia, where official figures show that 96% voted in favour.[8] Support was lowest in urban districts. It was least strong in Hamburg, where just under 80% voted affirmatively (20.4% against). In Aachen, 18.6% voted against. In Berlin, 18.5% of votes were negative and every district reported negative vote share greater than 10%. In the former Communist stronghold of Wedding it was 19.7% against.[8] The extent of the intimidation influenced the size of the “yes” vote.[7] Overall support for the government was lower than in the referendum of 12 November 1933. Where the referendum of 1933 had received support from 89.9% of the total electorate, that of 1934 had only 84.3% support.[5] The regional variation, however, was identical to that in the referendum of 1933.[8]

Some in the Nazi leadership were disappointed by the results of the referendum.[9] For instance, Joseph Goebbels’ diary entry for 22 August speaks of the referendum as a failure: “Initial results: very bad. Then better. Finally over 38 million for the Führer. I expected more. The Catholics failed Rosenberg!”[10] Nevertheless, historian Ian Kershaw has judged that even after accounting for the manipulation of the voting process, the results “reflected the fact that Hitler had the backing, much of it fervently enthusiastic, of the great majority of the German people” at the time.[9]

Endnotes

  1. D. Nohlen and P. Stöver (2010), Elections in Europe: A Data Handbook, p. 762.
  2. William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Touchstone Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
  3. Evans, Richard J. (2006). The Third Reich Trilogy#The Third Reich In Power. Penguin Books.
  4. Overy, Richard. The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. London: W. W. Norton.
  5. H. A. Winkler (2006), Germany: The Long Road West, Volume II (1933–1990) (Oxford University Press), pp. 38–39.
  6. Min Shu (27 May 2014), “Consolidating Leadership: Referendums in Nazi Germany and Postwar France”, lecture notes for Introduction to Direct Democracy (Waseda University), p. 4
  7. Richard J. Evans (2006). The Third Reich in Power 1933–1939. London: Penguin. p. 110.
  8. Arnold J. Zurcher (1935). “The Hitler Referenda”. American Political Science Review. 29 (1): 91–99.
  9. Ian Kershaw (1998). Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris. London: Penguin. p. 526.
  10. Markus Urban (2011), “The Self-Staging of a Plebiscitary Dictatorship: The NS-Regime Between ‘Uniformed Reichstag’, Referendum and Reichsparteitag”, in Ralph Jessen; Hedwig Richter (eds.), Voting for Hitler and Stalin: Elections Under 20th Century Dictatorships, New York: Campus Verlag, p. 43n

Originally published by Wikipedia, 08.03.2009, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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