Was Hitler Elected? Did Hitler Come to Power in a Democratic Society?
Hitler came to power in a Democracy as the NAZIs gained seats in the Reichstag, but he was never elected President in a Democratic election. Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, then became President and Chancellor by decree in 1934 after the NAZIs gained power through democratic and non-democratic means over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s.
In America, we hear “Hitler was elected President in a Democracy” a lot, but the sentence is so semantically wrong it merits a detailed discussion. Yes, Hitler came into power in a democratic society loosely speaking, but no, he was not elected by direct popular vote or anything like that (and in some cases neither were the NAZIs who gained seats in the Reichstag parliament).
Below we will explain how Germany is a mixed-Republic with a Parliament where officials elect the heads of state (they are not a direct democracy), how the corrupt NAZI party didn’t exactly come to power in fair elections in the first place, and how Hitler was appointed Führer under less than democratic circumstances.
TIP: Chancellor (head of government) and President (head of state) are two very similar positions. Similar to King and Prime Minister. Germany was a parliamentary system with two heads of state (before Hitler became President and Chancellor AKA Führer und Reichskanzler).
How did Hitler rise to power? – Alex Gendler and Anthony Hazard. The real story of how Hitler came to power.
How Parliaments Work and How the NAZIs and Hitler Seized Power
In a Parliamentary system, parties are elected and gain seats. The party with the most seats is the majority party, and all the parties form coalitions to do things like pass legislation and elect heads of state. Heads of state are gained and lost based on the consensus of parliament, they are not elected directly by the people (Germany is a republic, not a direct democracy). So Hitler was not “elected by the people”, but neither was any other head of state in Germany due simply to the way the German political system works.
That technicality aside, although Hitler and his NAZI party rose to power in “a democracy” (in a representative mixed-republic), they rose to power via corruption. So even loosely speaking, it is hard to consider Hitler and the NAZI “democratically elected”. Yes, the NAZI were voted in, but it is hard to call the two general elections of 1932 “democratic” given the events surrounding the Machtergreifung (the NAZI seizure of power).
Furthermore, Hitler wasn’t even elected by consensus of parliament. He was appointed by Paul von Hindenburg right before Hindenburg’s “mysterious” death (he was 84, but also… Hitler) after the NAZI jailed their opposition and pressured the other parties to pressure Hindenburg into appointing Hitler.
Yes, Hitler and the NAZI had popular support, but only a fraction of it was earnest nationalist support, much was forced support obtained via a campaign of corruption, violence, and propaganda which preyed on a people who were hurting economically after WWI.
In summary, the whole thing is almost too complex to apply the ol’ “Hitler was elected democratically” quip to, but since it is important, perhaps it is best phrased as,
- “Hitler and the NAZI party seized power in a democratic system.”
Or, a more detailed version,
- “The NAZI party seized power in a democratic system, slowly gaining seats in parliament over time, and made their many shady dealings look as legal as they could. After they had gained enough control of parliament, they pressured President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor. Then the NAZI seized power via the Enabling Act of 1933. This rise to power is called the Machtergreifung (the NAZI seizure of power). Finally upon Hindenburgs subsequent death in 1934 Hitler became Führer und Reichskanzler. The people approved this by vote, but it was not a free vote and Hitler and the NAZI were the only choice on the 1934 ballot measure.”
FACT: By July 1933 the Nazi Party as the only legal political party in Germany. If that gives you an idea of how “democratic” 1932’s elections and appointments were.
German government: How it works. TIP: The NAZI era Reichstag is the equivalent to the current German Bundestag, some aspects of the German parliamentary system changed, but this video should give you the general gist. Consider Angela Merkel wasn’t “elected by popular vote”, her party was elected and then the officials of the parties voted her in (kind of like how the U.S. works, we are both mixed federal republics, but we don’t have a parliamentary system). See German federal election, 2005 and How Germany’s Election System Works.
TIP: See how prime Ministers are elected for an example of the appointment process for heads of state in a Parliamentary system.
If Hitler Wasn’t Elected, How Did He Come to Power? – A Summary of Hitler’s Rise to Power
- The NAZI party ran in every election of the 1920’s (all fair elections between WWI and WWII), mostly with Hitler as its leader, although he was in jail for one election after an attempted coup.
- Eventually, the NAZI party gained enough seats to start making power grabs. Hitler’s appointment to Chancellor was made by President Paul von Hindenburg under political pressure on 30 January 1933. President von Hindenburg thought he could control the NAZIs this way; he was wrong.
- Shortly after the appointment, the NAZIs seized control of the government via a complex sequence of shady legal (and illegal) moves including the 28 February Reichstag Fire Decree and 21 March Enabling Act of 1933.
- Later in August 1934, with their new political power behind them, the NAZI’s constructed an illegal legal document that made Hitler President and Chancellor after Hindenburg’s death, Hindenburg died the next day. Hitler immediately combined the office of President and Chancellor, dissolving both positions and making himself Führer und Reichskanzler (“Leader and Reich Chancellor”; AKA President and Chancellor).
- The people voted to combine the posts of President and Chancellor via a NAZI controlled ballot measure and not a fair vote. This gave legal weight to the illegal combining of positions. From that moment forward Hitler and the NAZI party were the leaders of a one-party state.
In other words, none of the key moves Hitler made during his rise to power involved a truly fair election, and certainly no fair election was had to declare Hitler either Chancellor or President.
Instead of Hitler being elected in a Democratic fashion directly (or even appointed to power via white-hat traditional means), he and his NAZI party simply gained seats in government over the 1920’s both via legal elections and by force and corruption. It was the NAZIs initially legal rise to power in the government under Hitler’s leadership that eventually led to the NAZI domination of government and Hitler’s appointment to Chancellor and the Decree.
Despite Hitler never winning a fair election, he did win a mostly-fixed March 1933 election, but this was after he was already Chancellor (thus he didn’t gain a new position, just obtained more seats for the NAZIs in government).
So, with the idea that Chancellor (head of government) and President (head of state) are very similar executive positions, Hitler became both, but was not elected to either position via a fair democratic election.
The story of Hitler’s rise to power is complex (if you haven’t noticed) and involves understanding the economic and political turmoil in Germany starting with World War I (1914 – 1918). Below we detail the main bullet-points of Hitler’s rise to power.
Adolf Hitler’s rise to power to the fall of Berlin – Hitler in Colour. Hitler was thought to be part black and Jewish. He was aware of his Jewish heritage but grew to hate his ancestry passed down by his father after being almost beat to death by him. Later, after getting hit on the head a few too many times again in WWI, and after oppressive economic measures enforced by post-WWI treaty’s, he got so angry he rallied up the Nationalists and began his rise to power. It is amazing the effect that childhood tragedy, poverty, and prejudice can have, in this case, the effect was largely WWII. The story of Hitler doesn’t just contain one lesson, it contains many.
FACT: Hitler came to power the same year FDR did. The Great Depression had effects that rippled across the world creating fertile ground for bold social minded leaders (good or bad). In this time classical liberalism was nearly abandoned by most of the developed world often leaving a nation, like Germany, to choose between different forms of socialism.
TIP: After the NAZI party made Hitler President and Chancellor by decree (calling for the permanent combination of those positions) and the people approved of this by ballot measure, Hitler quickly abolished the position of President and named himself Führer und Reichskanzler (“Leader and Reich Chancellor”; AKA President and Chancellor). Hitler was only the third President of the new German Democracy.
Adolf Hitler’s presidential campaign, 1932. Hitler’s 1932 campaign to make Germany great again.
Hitler’s Rise to Power (In Detail)
Hitler’s Rise to Power works like this:
- After WWI, Hitler entered politics and started organizing German Nationalists (especially German soldiers and war heroes with which whom he served). The nationalist soldiers saw the center-left politicans as betraying them by signing the Treaty of Versailles.
- Hitler and his fellow politicos created the NAZI Party (Actually NSDAP; National Socialist German Workers’ Party). This was a mostly right-wing Fascist party (they wanted “socialism”, but only for native nationalist Germans, so it isn’t very “left-wing” despite the name). The opposition parties were the left-wing Democratic Socialists, Center Left, and Communist Parties (to use a mix of modern and historical terms; the parties typically all had German names). The other “right-wing” parties were the other nationalist party, a people’s party, and a center-right party (again there are lots of parties, and are hard to keep track of, especially since they almost all used acronyms). See the difference between Communism and Fascism.
- The NAZI party rose in power from 1918 – 1932, with Hitler taking control in 1921. In the period, after Hitler became the party’s most outspoken member and then-leader, Hitler and the NAZIs tried to overthrow the government. Hitler was subsequently thrown in jail on 11 November 1923 for high treason. This event is called the “Beer Hall Putsch” because the nationalists organized and began their failed march and coup at the Burgerbraukeller beer hall. Later, after Hitler gained power there would be a day in honor of the 14 “martyrs” who died at the Beer Hall Putsch.
- While in jail Hitler began to work on Mein Kampf Volumes 1 and 2 (1925 – 1926), an effort which helped fund the NAZI party (the books sold poorly at first, but later sold millions of copies after Hitler’s rise to power). Hitler’s inspirations for the book included eugenics (which was popular at the time), Henry Ford’s The Dearborn Independent, and general anti-Semitic propaganda (all a story for another day).
- Hitler didn’t serve his full 5 year sentence, and instead got out of jail early due to popular support in January of 1925. At this point he began to rebuild the NSDAP (NAZI Party).
- In a meeting with Prime Minister of Bavaria Heinrich Held on 4 January 1925, Hitler agreed to respect the authority of the state and promised that he would seek political power only through the democratic process. All bans against him (which had been instated previously) had been lifted and the NAZI party began trying to win elections again.
- In this time the NAZIs used unrest over the Great Depression resulting from the U.S. stock market crash on 24 October 1929 (which had spread to Germany and caused hyperinflation) to take political power through force and corruption. This involves many complex moves, but results in the NAZIs gaining some semblance of power in the 1932 elections.
- In February 1932, then-President Hindenburg ran for re-election and Hitler ran against him twice in a row. The first time the NAZIs got 30% of the vote, but none of the many parties got a majority. The next election Hindenburg won, but the NAZI party won 230 seats out of 608 in the Reichstag (like a senate/house/parliament).
- Despite lacking the majority, the NAZI party had power in the Reichstag and they took more and more through a series of shady moves. Hindenburg thought he could leverage Hitler’s popularity with nationalists and control him, and eventually made him chancellor on 30 January 1933 (after lots of pushback including first appointing the nationalist Franz von Papen to appease the NAZIs and then Kurt von Schleicher whom Hitler and the NAZIs killed in the Night of the Long Knives; TIP: They essentially kill EVERYONE mentioned in this story, just in case you aren’t fully getting the moral here, everyone who helped Hitler save a few key loyal NAZIs are killed after Hitler’s rise to power).
- On February 27 – 28, Hindenburg paved the way to dictatorship and war by issuing the Reichstag Fire Decree which nullified civil liberties (the Fire Decree was a response to, what was almost certainly a staged fire by the NAZIs). The decree is considered by historians to be one of the key steps in the establishment of a one-party Nazi state in Germany along with the March 24 Enabling Act of 1933 which gave then Chancellor Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. The Communists were blamed for the fire and jailed. Generally, all opposition groups were pushed out of the Reichstag while the NAZI party slowly ensured a majority over the next 5 months. These coordinated events leading to control of Germany are called the Gleichschaltung, which roughly means the “coordination”.
- However, after ceasing power in the Fire Decree, but before the Enabling act, the NAZI party still had to win a majority (as they needed their rise to power to appear legal). Given this Federal elections were held in Germany on 5 March 1933. The NAZI party managed not to win a majority of seats (despite the SS, SA and Stahlhelm supervising voting and jailing the opposition). The NAZI’s joined with other right-wing groups to form a coalition and fudged
- With Hitler as chancellor, and the NAZI party finally controlling “a majority” of seats in the the Reichstag (some indirectly through scandalous and barely legal means), Democracy was dismantled bit-by-bit and replaced with a Dictatorship.
- In the months after the Fire Decree many constitutional right were suspended. The NAZIs rigged elections, jailed opposition, and generally used force to take over in way that was legal on paper (although in retrospect, certainly not in practice).
- On 1 February 1933 the Reichstag was dissolved, on 22 March 1933 the first concentration camp opened and began receiving political prisoners, and in the fall of 1933 the plan to annex Western Poland began. Later, after the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, Hitler declares he has the right to act unilaterally as “supreme judge” without resort to courts to defend Germany.
- In 1934, upon the death of Hindenburg (natural causes i’m sure), Hitler was finally made President. The previous day, the cabinet had enacted the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich”. This law stated that upon Hindenburg’s death, the office of president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the chancellor. The decree was illegal, but went unchallenged.
- Hitler immediately abolished the office of President and replaced it with the new position of Führer und Reichskanzler (“Leader and Reich Chancellor”).
- The people immediately elected Hitler by plebiscite (referendum; AKA ballot measure). Hitler and the NAZI party were the only choice on the ballot, the ballot. The ballot specifically was to approve the merger of the offices of President and Chancellor (it wasn’t a Presidential election, and it sure the heck wasn’t Democratic in the pure sense).
Obviously the Communists, the Center Left, and Democratic Socialists who were still left were exiled and executed upon Hitler fully seizing control of the state and government, this was followed swiftly by non-German nationals (including Jews and Gypsies) befalling the same fate as the Communist opposition.
TIP: For a more complete timeline of the rise of Nazism see, an early timeline of Nazism.
|Election||Total votes||% votes||Reichstag seats||Notes|
|May 1924||1,918,300||6.5||32||Hitler in prison|
|December 1924||907,300||3.0||14||Hitler released from prison|
|September 1930||6,409,600||18.3||107||After the financial crisis|
|July 1932||13,745,000||37.3||230||After Hitler was candidate for presidency|
|March 1933||17,277,180||43.9||288||Only partially free; During Hitler’s term as chancellor of Germany|
Below is the last actual Democratic election Hitler participated in, the 1932 elections in Germany. As you can see Hitler didn’t win this election):
|Candidate||Party||First round||Second round|
|Paul von Hindenburg||Independent (center left)||18,651,497||49.6||19,359,983||53.0|
|Adolf Hitler||Nazi Party||11,339,446||30.1||13,418,547||36.8|
|Ernst Thälmann||Communist Party||4,938,341||13.2||3,706,759||10.2|
|Source: Nohlen & Stöver|
FACT: Hitler was inspired by Benito Mussolini‘s March on Rome, the arm raising salute is the Roman Salute. Hitler’s “brown shirts” are modeled after Mussolini’s “black shirts” and his general theatrics are modeled after Mussolini and stage acting.
TIP: As noted above type of Democracy Hitler rose to power in was a parliamentary system where parties are awarded seats in the “Reichstag” or parliament based on popular vote. In a system like this, parties form coalitions and work together. It’s still like this today. If a coalition has a majority, and can sway other factions to its side, it can pass laws. The NAZI party leveraged this democratic process to gain control of the government. It was all justified on paper, but in retrospect involved a lot of corruption, threats, violence, and the general exploitation of a young democracy. The NAZI’s jailed and intimidated the left-wing (Communists and Democratic Socialists) and temporarily worked with the right-wing (like the other nationalists). Once they got some power, they would pass laws in their favor, allowing them to gain more power. This strategy allowed them to change the laws, push out and control parties, and consolidate the government until the German Democracy was a Dictatorship.
The Reichstag Fire Decree
The preamble and Article 1 of the Reichstag Fire Decree show the methods by which the civil rights protections of the Weimar Republic’s democratic constitution were legally abolished by the Nazis:
Order of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State
On the basis of Article 48 paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the German Reich, the following is ordered in defense against Communist state-endangering acts of violence:
Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom [habeas corpus], freedom of (opinion) expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
Context 5, Part 4: Was Adolf Hitler Elected?. The real story of how Hitler came to power.
The Moral of the Story
Despots can arise in liberal environments if their power is not checked and especially if people are feeling the alienating effects of social, economic, and political inequality.
Next time someone tells you about “blah, blah, blah, Communists, blah, blah, blah”, and starts pushing a hate-fueled nativist message that seems oddly supportive of the right-wing and demonizing of the left, you may want to take a step back and say, “hmmm”.
The right-wing fascists were just as bad as left-wing Communists by most measures, and it rarely makes sense to point to one extremist WWII ideology without considering the other.
We will follow this up with why the Communists winning wouldn’t have been much better (see Lenin and then Stalin and Bolshevik Western Marxist revolution in Russia), but suffice to say the moral of WWII is that extremes corrupt democracy (not that the left-wing or right-wing extreme was better or worse).
As for the more centered parties on the right and left who better represent the spirit of the modern West, well, it does make one wish someone had listened to Keynes:
“Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some…. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”… “In Germany the total expenditure of the Empire, the Federal States, and the Communes in 1919–20 is estimated at 25 milliards of marks, of which not above 10 milliards are covered by previously existing taxation. This is without allowing anything for the payment of the indemnity. In Russia, Poland, Hungary, or Austria such a thing as a budget cannot be seriously considered to exist at all.”… “Thus the menace of inflationism described above is not merely a product of the war, of which peace begins the cure. It is a continuing phenomenon of which the end is not yet in sight.”… “But who can say how much is endurable, or in what direction men will seek at last to escape from their misfortunes?” – John Maynard Keynes on The Economic Consequences of “The Peace” following WWI and what affect it might have on Germany.