He went from fringe political to chancellor of Germany within a few years and from chancellor to dictator in a matter of months.
From Fringe Politician to Chancellor
For most of the 1920s, Hitler was a fringe-party rabble-rouser. In 1923, as the leader of the tiny Nazi party, he incited a violent attempt to overthrow the government and got himself thrown in prison for treason (a short stay that he later used to his advantage).
Hitler was a talented and mesmerizing speaker, and his speeches appealed to primal emotion and resentment rather than logic. His basic message was simple (and familiar):
Thanks to the incompetence and weakness of its leaders, the once-great nation of Germany had been reduced to a humiliating shadow of its former self.
Hitler and the Nazis, Hitler promised, would make Germany great again.
After a period of economic instability and hyper-inflation in the early 1920s, Germany’s Weimar economy stabilized. Even by the end of the decade, after nearly ten years of selling their story, Hitler and the Nazis were still viewed as extremist cranks. In the elections of 1928, for example, the Nazi party won only 3% of the seats in the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament. A year later, a Nazi candidate for president won an even more feeble 1% of the vote.
After the stock-market crash of 1929, however, everything changed.
As the shockwaves from the crash and Great Depression spread, Germany’s economic situation deteriorated rapidly. Unemployment soared from about 10% to about 15% in a year — and then to a staggering 30% over the next two years. Violence and political unrest increased.
Economic distress creates an understandable desperation for change. And in the misery that was Germany’s economy after the crash, two formerly fringe parties on opposite ends of the political spectrum gained support — the communists and the Nazis. In the elections of 1930, the Nazis shocked the country by capturing 19% of the vote.
The rise of the Nazis and communists fragmented Germany’s government and created a power vacuum. More centrist political parties failed to unite in opposition. And over the next two years, as Germany’s economy continued to deteriorate and unemployment skyrocketed, Hitler and the Nazis expertly exploited the situation, campaigning relentlessly via propaganda, speeches, and intimidation.
In the spring of 1932, at the height of the depression, Hitler himself ran for president. He won a startling 39% of the vote but lost to the incumbent 84-year old Paul von Hindenburg, who had been persuaded to run for a second term because he was the only one viewed by non-Nazis as capable of defeating Hitler.
By that fall, the Nazis had captured 33% of the seats in the Reichstag and become the largest political party in Germany.
A few months later, at the end of January 1933, believing that he could appease Hitler while still controlling him, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor, the leader of the government.
From Chancellor to Dictator
At this point, the Nazis had amassed more power than any other political party in Germany, but still lacked a majority in the Reichstag. Germany still had a free press and a president, and German citizens still had basic civil rights. As chancellor, moreover, Hitler still did not control Germany’s military or foreign affairs. And President Hindenburg still had the power to fire him.
But as soon as he was appointed chancellor, Hitler began rectifying that.
Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and set a date for new elections in early March, 1933, with the goal of winning a Nazi majority.
In the lead-up to the vote, the Nazis waged a campaign of fear, arguing that the rival communist party was planning to take over Germany by means of a violent revolution.
Then, a week before the election, Hitler either brilliantly orchestrated or brilliantly capitalized on (or both) an event that allowed the Nazis to frame the communist takeover story as a seemingly self-evident reality.
On the night of February 27, 1933, a fire ravaged the Reichstag building in Berlin.
Historians still argue about whether the fire was set by a lone-wolf communist or planned as a “false flag” operation by the Nazis.
Either way, Hitler pounced on it.
Hitler declared that the fire had been the first strike in the communist revolution that the Nazis had warned about. The next day, he persuaded Hindenburg to enact a law known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” ostensibly to protect the German people from the forthcoming communist rampage.
The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil rights in Germany — freedom of the press, freedom of expression, habeas corpus, rights to privacy. Hitler would never again restore them. The Reichstag Fire Decree also allowed the Nazis to start rounding up members of the communist party and throwing them in jail, an effective way to neutralize political opponents.
In the ensuing elections, the Nazis increased their control of the Reichstag from 33% to 44%. With help from an allied party, this gave them a simple majority. But it did not give them enough to fulfill Hitler’s ultimate goal — the passage of an “Enabling Act” that would give Hitler the power to change laws without the Reichstag. To do that, the Nazis needed a two-thirds majority.
It took only another two weeks for Hitler to get it.
On March 15, 1933, Hitler held his first cabinet meeting as chancellor, during which he outlined his plans to pass the Enabling Act. The vote was set for nine days later, on March 24.
By that time, thanks to the powers granted by the Reichstag Fire Decree, most members of the communist party in the Reichstag were in jail or in hiding, thus neutralizing one major voting bloc. Lest the empty seats of these communists hinder the assembly of a “quorum,” the Reichstag president, Herman Göring, changed the Reichstag’s rules to exclude communist members.
Hitler struck a deal with the Catholic-led Centre party, promising that Catholic civil liberties and schools would be protected in exchange for its support. And the Nazis intimidated or detained enough members of the one remaining major party to ensure the Act’s passage.
The Enabling Act superseded the Weimar constitution and eliminated the Reichstag’s role in Germany’s government. After the Act was passed, Hitler and the Nazis could enact whatever laws they wanted. Such was the power of the Enabling Act, in fact, that Hitler never even bothered to rescind the Weimar constitution. Instead, he simply renewed the Enabling Act every four years until the end of his reign.
By the summer of 1933, it was all but over. Just five years after a national election in which the Nazis won only 3% of popular vote, there were no other political parties in Germany.
The only remaining check on Hitler’s authority was Germany’s aging President Hindenburg, who still retained the right to dismiss him. From the spring of 1933 to the summer of 1934, Hitler continued to show Hindenburg deference and respect in public. In early August, 1934, when Hindenburg was on his deathbed, Hitler passed a law that merged the powers of the presidency with the powers of the chancellor. When Hindenburg died, Hitler’s ascendancy was complete.