Adolf Hitler was freed from Landsberg Prison on December 20 1925 with 3 years and 333 days of his sentence unserved. He emerged into a political climate where a post-Putsch ban on his party and in-fighting amongst the factions in his absence left the radical right wing in pieces. The Weimar Republic was stablising and the so-called 'Dawes Plan' had secured German war reparations at a steadier, more managable rate, easing the pressure on the German economy and reducing the mass discontent that had been so central to the Nazis' early success. Hitler had to rebuild the party from scratch, and establish himself as leader all over again if he was to succeed. It was a pivotal moment in history, when the Hitler dictatorship was nearly averted.
Before his imprisonment Hitler handed over control of the party to Alfred Rosenberg, who proved unable to keep the party united in the absence of its leader. Not for the last, or indeed for the first, time this would raise the question of whether Hitler's actions were brilliant political calculation or blind luck. His refusal to commit himself to any of the factions within the political right during his imprisonment meant, for Hitler, that he emerged to find not one of them had managed to establish dominance. Having suceeded in getting the ban on the party lifted, Hitler's next task was to see off the aspects of the party that threatened his dominance.
That Ludendorff had succeeded in exonerating himself from blame for the occurence of the Putsch probably owed more to the esteem in which he was still held than in the General himself. He had always been a thorn in Hitler's side, commanding a prestige that the little Austrian corporal struggled to match. However it was this that enabled Hitler to land a decisive blow against Ludendorff. In February 1925 the incumbent German president died, precipitating an election. Hitler persuaded Ludendorff to be the Nazi Party candidate. Up against fellow military veteran General Paul Hindenburg, and lacking the backing of strong party with voter support, Ludendorff polled just 1% of the vote. This humiliation was enough to effectively end the general's political involvement, and he was soon to disappear altogether from political life.
Hitler's Bavarian powerbase had always been the southern state capital of Munich. This suited Hitler as the location where he had the most considerable support, but it meant that he risked isolating the northern wing of the party, who had lobbied for a relocation of the party headquarters. A year after Hitler had seen off Ludendorff, he found a northern alliance within the party, headed by the emerging Gregor Strasser1 an alternative party programme. Hitler's response was to travel to Bamberg for a meeting with the Northern alliance, at which he endeavoured to assert his authority and rejected the programme out of hand. Faced with this direct challenge, and some typically robust arguments from the Nazi leader, the alternative programme, and the challenge that went with it, collapsed.
In the years following the First World War, Germany had been under the rule of a newly imposed, and still widely distrusted, parliamentary democracy. The nature of the multi-party democracy, common in mainland Europe in the 20th Century, meant that any one party was unlikely to dominate the Reichstag entirely. Cabinets would frequently feature representatives from a number of parties in, often shakey, coalitions. It was the complex job of the Chancellor to keep all the various parties, on which his majority was dependant, happy. The job of Chancellor was in the gift of the President, who also had the power to pass laws by 'emergency decree' without the prior approval of the Reichstag, as well as the authority to dissolve parliament and, within a strict time limit, call fresh elections. Another aspect of the system at this precise time was that the ecomomic crisis was so severe that a revolution seemed a genuine possibility. However the army, the obvious means of repressing any sich threat, was restricted by the Versailles Treaty and it's suitablity to do this job was far from certain. All of this meant that, while the constitution could in theory be broken, it was a dangerous game. It also mean that any party with popular support and a strong paramilitary organisation was in a potentially very strong position.
Climbing the Ladder
Having decisively claimed his position at the head of the party, Hitler's next challenge was to deal with the fact that the NSDAP remained a fringe party within German politics. By 1928, it's tenth year in power, the Weimar government was acheiving some measure of stability, as well as a modest economic recovery. In that same year The Nazi Party gained just 2.6% of the vote in the Reichstag elections. The party achieved some sucess- polling it's highest result in a Lantag2 election - just 11.3% in Thungia. This was enough for the party to claim the education and interior ministries within the lantag, but, since these were undertaken with no great success, neither the electoral result or the subsequent use of their first parliamentary power suggested to anyone that the Nazi Party was anything to concern it's political opponents.
If gaining dominance within the party had been something Hitler had been able to do himself then gaining power in Germany, a key aim for which there was never, in Hitler's mind, any coherent plan, would require to intervention of powerful allies (as well as political opponents with a vested interest in his success) and the momentum of events completely beyond his control. 1929 the event that would herald the four extraordinary years that would propel Hitler to power occured: The Wall Street Crash.
All or Nothing
As the reverberations of the disaster ripplied around the world Germany's economy collapsed for the second time under the Wiemar Republic. Faced with this economic crisis, the fragile hold the Government had on the trust of the German people began to evaporate. In 1930, Reich Chancellor Muller resigned. President Hindenberg disolved parliament and new elections were set to take place in sixty days. The Nazi election machine, now well drilled and organised by the likes of Gregor Strasser and Joseph Goebbels launched a formidable campaign. The Party was a presence across the country, with speakers and party activists making an impression on previously untouched areas of the country. Hitler flew across the country making speech after speech to eager crowds. By the time all the votes had been counted, the Nazi Party had polled 18.3% of the vote. They had gone from 12 seats to 107, and were the second largest party in the Reichstag. The party now had massive influence within the Reichstag, but lacked the crucial backing of President Hindenberg, in who's power lay the appointment of the Chancellor. He was firmly opposed to appointing Hitler, and opted instead for Heirich Brunning, leader of the Catholic Zentrum party.
Brunning persued a policy of driving Germany further into economic collapse in a bid to escape further war repairations. It was a policy that won no favour with the Nazis. 1931 was a difficult year for Hitler. Not only did he have to work hard to quell the rebellious SA, he had to cope with the scandal of the death of his niece Geli Raubal3.
In 1932 the post of president was up for election, and Hitler stood against the incumbent Hindenberg. In the first round Hitler gained 30% of the vote, and the results were close enough to force a second round. Although Hitler's total had increased to 37%, Hindenberg's own had gone from 49% to 53%. Even Hitler himself had not expected actual victory in this election. However things were continuing to change at an alarming rate in the Reichstag. Brunning had supposedly lost the support of the German army, and lacked a decisive majority in the Reichstag. As a result of this loss of support, he and his entire cabinet resigned. Ironically, he choose the same time as his financial plan had finally brough about the end to war repairations he had been chasing. Hindenberg, still vehemently opposed to the appointment of Hitler, appointed Franz Von Papen as his next Chancellor.
Once again, parliament was dissolved and elections were called. The Nazis, with another energetic election campaign, polled 37% of the vote. They were now the largest party in the Reichstag. Hitler was now in a position to demand the Chancellorship of the Reichstag. Hindenberg refused, and Hitler declared that he would not bring his party into a Government for anything less than himself as Chancellor. In the mean time von Papen was struggling as he had no majority in the Reichstag and relied entirely on Presidential decree. On top of this Schleicher, the Head of the Defense ministry and a man who, having the support of the army, carried considerable influence, was seeking to persuade Hindenberg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. With his support dwindling and a vote of no confidence looming from the Reichstag, von Papen resigned. Again the Reichstag was dissolved, again fresh elections were called. The Nazis held on to their dominance in the Reichstag, although their share of the vote dropped to 33.1% Despite this reduction, Hitler continued to demand the Chancellorship, and accept nothing less. Hindenberg continued to refuse, and instead appointed Schleicher.
An attempt was made to snatch Hitler's majority from under him by offering the Vice-Chancellorship to Gregor Strasser. Hitler responded in typuical fashion, holding numerous meetings for party functionaries, addressing them emotionally and seeking, and getting, proclomations of total loyalty. Strasser, faced with challenging Hitler's domiance of the party, resigned from political life. Without the support of the Nazis, Schleicher was struggling as much as his predecessors. While Schleicher could boast the valuable backing of the Reichswehr he did not have the support from Hindenberg (who had only appointed him reluctantly) that Papen had enjoyed. In January 1933, less than two months after taking office, Schleicher resigned. Hindenberg was now running out of options. He was still vehemently opposed to appointing Hitler. Papen continued to be his choice but the former Chancellor recognised the futility of his position and was now suggesting to Hindenberg that he should be Vice Chancellor in a Hitler government. At the same time Joachim Von Ribbentrop, a leading Nazi who would go on to become Hitler's foriegn minister, was organising meetings between Hitler, Papen and Hidenberg's son. The main thrust of Papen's argument centred around the idea that, surrounded by an experienced and non-Nazi cabinet, Hitler, a man with no experience of high office, could be 'boxed in' and others would be able, in reality, to dominate the cabinet. Hitler had also been persuaded to accept the prospect of a cabinet with posts for only two others Nazis besides himself. With options running out and increasing persuasion from influential sources, President Hindenberg, offering the world his entry for the worst decision in history award, appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.