Hitler's power grab

August 02, 1994|By Blaine Taylor

TODAY MARKS the 60th anniversary of the death of German Reich President Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and a crucial turning point for chancellor Adolf Hitler.

The death of the only man Hitler is said to have feared gave the Nazi unbridled power to advance his evil desires, resulting in the holocaust. The 87-year-old field marshal died in his sleep at 9 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1934. By noon that day, in a pre-arranged deal with the Army and Hindenburg's son, Oskar, Hitler announced that the offices of president and chancellor had been combined in his person, and that his new title was Fuhrer (Leader). He would command both the state and the armed forces.

The Army got the promise of unlimited expansion and endless vistas of promotions (many generals would be made field marshals in 1940) and Oskar von Hindenburg, for suppressing his father's will calling for a restoration of the exiled Hohenzollern monarchy, was elevated immediately to general, never to be heard from again.

The relationship between the elder von Hindenburg and Hitler -- a lowly corporal in World War I -- had been a stormy one from the beginning. Von Hindenburg had scored some brilliant victories on the Eastern Front as commander of all German forces during the war; Hitler was an unknown messenger in the Western Front trenches. When "der alte Herr" (the old one) was first elected to a seven-year presidential term in 1925, Hitler was still a struggling, provincial politician from Bavaria who wasn't even a German citizen, but an Austrian facing possible deportation.

And yet it was to this man that the German armed forces swore this oath the day von Hindenburg died: "I swear to God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath."

Prior to von Hindenburg's death, Hitler had already smashed the opposition to his rule within his own Nazi Party in the Blood Purge of June 1934, and would purge the ranks of the Army generals as well in February 1938. He would then be complete dictator.

How had this come about? It is a strange story.

His supporters stuck by Hitler for 15 years, never knowing for sure if he (and they) would ever come to power. Moreover, in the very depth of the Depression, with massive unemployment rampant, Nazi Party members paid dues to belong. Hitler held no political office until 1932, when he was appointed to a minor state post by one of his party leaders in a move to grant him citizenship at last; it worked.

Von Hindenburg had taken Hitler's measure, and despised him, vowing never to appoint him chancellor, calling him instead "that Bohemian corporal."

The shift in their relationship began early in 1932 when the fuhrer reluctantly decided to run for president against von Hindenburg. The key players: Hitler, von Hindenburg and a Communist Party candidate.

In the first election on March 13, 1932, neither of the two main contenders received an outright majority, and a two-man runoff election was held less than a month later. Hitler lost, but in the general elections of the German Parliament 13 days later, the Nazis became the country's dominant party, but still without a majority to govern. Hitler seemed at a dead end, his career checkmated on what later would be seen as the very eve of his victory.

Von Hindenburg, fearing a Nazi-inspired civil war, reluctantly agreed to name Hitler chancellor of a coalition cabinet.

Von Hindenburg's former chief of staff from World War I, a former political ally of Hitler's -- Gen. Erich Ludendorff -- said in a telegram he sent the aging marshal: "By naming Hitler as Reich Chancellor, you have delivered up our holy Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time . . . Because of what you have done, coming generations will curse you in your grave."

Blaine Taylor, who writes from Towson, is author of "Guarding the Fuhrer: Sepp Dietrich, Johann Rattenhuber and the Protection of Adolf Hitler."

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