Hitler spent the first days of August at his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg, awaiting events, consulting with his inner circle, plotting strategy. Messengers came and went. Rumors of intrigues circulated. A call from Berlin, from the office of the Reich President, was expected at any moment. “High expectations filled the air,” Goebbels wrote, “the whole party is ready to take power. The SA are leaving their work places to prepare for this. Our political leaders are making ready for the great hour. If things go well, everything will be all right. If they do not,” Goebbels worried, “it will be a terrible setback.”
Hitler was determined to accept nothing less than the chancellorship of a presidential government, armed with emergency decree power, free from the troublesome inconveniences of parliamentary politics. He would also demand the installation of a National Socialist as minister president of Prussia, as minister of the interior (and hence the police) in both the Reich and in Prussia, the minister of justice (and hence the courts), agriculture, aviation, and the creation of a new Ministry of “People’s Education.” He pondered possible candidates to fill those posts; went over plans for the assumption of power. He would insist on an “enabling act” (Ermächtigungsgesetz) to govern without interference from the Reichstag. “Once we attain power,” Goebbels wrote prophetically in his diary, “we will never give it up until our dead bodies are carried from office.”
Strasser had grave doubts about this course of action. Nothing more could be done with propaganda and mass mobilization. The party had finally exhausted its electoral potential, he feared, and the time had come to consider entering into a coalition government. Hitler should be open to entering a cabinet, even as vice chancellor. Taking a hard line about the chancellorship was a serious mistake. Hitler’s “all or nothing” strategy would drive the party into a ditch. If the NSDAP, having reached the limits of its electoral potential, remained in fruitless opposition, it would lose credibility, not only with the rank and file but with the millions who had voted Nazi expecting some immediate impact on the government. His was a minority view. Phone calls and emissaries from Berlin brought almost hourly news and rumors. The Catholic Zentrum had taken soundings about the possibility of a Nazi-Zentrum coalition, which would command a majority in the Reichstag. Strasser was interested in the possibilities of such an arrangement, but Hitler was skeptical, and suspicions in both parties proved insurmountable. Trust was everywhere thin on the ground. Hitler, it was understood, would demand the chancellorship “with full governmental powers,” and Hindenburg, it was also understood, was staunchly opposed to such an appointment. Undeterred, Papen and Schleicher, now minister of defense in the cabinet, were both eager to entice Hitler into the government, hoping that he could be persuaded to serve as vice chancellor in a reconstituted Papen cabinet.
Events moved quickly. On August 6, Schleicher invited Hitler to meet with him at an army installation just north of Berlin, and the general appeared receptive to Hitler’s demands for the chancellorship, but warned that there might be trouble with the Reich President. Indeed, there was. When Schleicher raised the possibility with Hindenburg a few days later, the Old One dismissed it out of hand. Still smarting from the bitter presidential campaigns of the spring, Hindenburg declared that his decision was unalterable. On August 10, Papen tried his hand with the Reich President, raising the possibility of a Hitler chancellorship, perhaps presiding over a National Socialist–Zentrum majority in the Reichstag. Hindenburg wouldn’t hear of it. He would never make that loathsome “Bohemian corporal” chancellor of the Reich.
Feverish negotiations continued. The streets of the government quarter teemed with expectant crowds. The Berlin papers fairly sizzled with speculation about different combinations. A decision would be made soon. Meanwhile, the Berlin SA was making preparations for a Nazi takeover of the city. “The SA is gathering around Berlin,” Goebbels noted. “It makes the gentlemen nervous,” and “that,” he smirked, “is the purpose of the exercise.”
Acting as Hitler’s emissary, Röhm met with Schleicher and Papen on August 12. Opposition to a Hitler chancellorship, Röhm reported to Hitler, appeared to be hardening, and Hindenburg would make a decision very soon. It was time for the Führer and his entourage to come to Berlin. Before the day was out, a long caravan of black automobiles departed the Obersalzberg for the capital. Some party leaders raced on ahead by train, but Hitler preferred the lengthy trip by car. Arriving in the dead of night, he chose to stay at Goebbels’s country house outside the city at Caputh, a lakeside village where, among other luminaries, Albert Einstein owned a vacation home. “The Führer is facing some tough decisions,” Goebbels wrote that night, as he watched Hitler pace the terrace of the villa. “Without full power he cannot master the situation. If he doesn’t receive full power, he must refuse the offer.” But if he did refuse, there “would be a mighty depression in the movement and in the electorate.” After all, the party had “only this one iron in the fire.”
Hitler understood the high-stakes game he was playing. On the one hand, entering a Papen cabinet would certainly alienate the radicals within the party, especially within the impatient SA, whose Storm Troopers were ready for action against both the Marxists and the reactionaries. On the other hand, by refusing to enter a coalition government, Hitler risked undermining his credibility with the party’s newly expanded electorate. Many, in fact most of the party’s voters on July 31, Goebbels realized, were not staunch National Socialists drawn to the party by ideological conviction but protest voters fed up with the paralyzed “Weimar system.” They expected change, rapid change. Would they understand?
Despite Strasser’s insistent warnings about a failure to enter a coalition government, Hitler never seriously considered that alternative. If he agreed to join the cabinet as vice chancellor, he would be a diminished figure, binding himself to precisely the reactionary “Cabinet of Barons” he had campaigned so vigorously against. The “Führer mystique” he had carefully nurtured would be shattered, and he would be exploited by Papen, Schleicher, and the reactionaries he detested. He would be isolated in the cabinet and reduced to the role of “drummer,” winning mass support for a government that without him had as good as none. It was a role he was not going to play. “Hitler under Papen,” Goebbels sniffed: “a grotesque absurdity.”
On the morning of the 13th, Hitler, accompanied by Göring and Röhm, met first with Schleicher and then with Papen. Both conveyed the same message. They were determined to set aside the Weimar constitution and install an authoritarian government, and they wanted his help. But for now, a Hitler chancellorship was out of the question. Hindenburg was utterly opposed. Papen hinted that if Hitler entered the cabinet now, his moment would come, and soon. He even suggested that after sweeping away the remnants of the failed Republic and establishing an authoritarian regime, he would cede the chancellorship to Hitler. It could be a matter of months, perhaps even weeks. But Hitler’s cooperation now was essential. He should prove his willingness to work together, to demonstrate a sense of political responsibility by serving the conservative cabinet. Hindenburg’s opposition to a Hitler chancellorship might then be overcome. Hitler flatly refused, and the sometimes heated interview came to a close.
In the afternoon, a frustrated and angry Hitler was summoned for an audience with the Reich President. He was reluctant to go since he had heard from emissaries that Hindenburg had already decided to pass over him. Papen would remain chancellor. But Hindenburg wanted to discuss the matter with Hitler one last time. Maybe Hitler could be convinced to serve in the existing government or at least to cooperate with Papen. Or perhaps Hitler, with his mighty oratorical skills and personal magnetism, might persuade the old Feldmarschall to overcome his reservations and appoint a National Socialist government after all.
At the meeting in the Presidential Palace Hindenburg made no headway. Serving in the Papen government was out of the question, Hitler replied, and renewed his demand for the “leadership of the state to its full extent.” On this, Hindenburg simply could not be moved. He could not answer “before God, his conscience, and the Fatherland,” he told Hitler, “if he handed over the entire power of the government to a single party, and one which was so intolerant towards others with different views.” He feared that “a presidential cabinet headed by you would inevitably develop into a party dictatorship . . . something that he could never reconcile with his oath and his conscience.”
Hitler left the meeting enraged. The whole affair had been a setup, arranged by Papen to humiliate him, to put him in his place. “The notion of the Führer as Vice-Chancellor of a bourgeois cabinet is too grotesque to be taken seriously,” Goebbels scoffed after Hitler’s return from the meeting. The party, after its sensational electoral victory, would now be thrown back into opposition. That night Hitler and Röhm briefed disappointed SA leaders on the state of affairs, hoping to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Their task, Goebbels recorded, would be a difficult one. “Who knows if . . . [the SA] units will be able to hold together. Nothing is harder than to tell troops already sure of victory that this victory has come to naught.” They had good reason to be nervous.
While this debate occupied Hitler and the leadership during the late summer and early autumn, the monthly activity reports flowing in from the NSDAP’s regional propaganda operatives left little doubt about the impact of Hitler’s decision on the party’s grassroots appeal. In its monthly situation report for August, the RPL soberly acknowledged that Hitler’s refusal to enter the cabinet had generated considerable problems within the party’s membership and electorate and predicted serious difficulties for the NSDAP in any upcoming campaign. The prevailing mood “could be expressed with the words: ‘This time I voted for Hitler and again nothing has happened. Next time I won’t vote.’ ” The message from the party’s grassroots propaganda apparatus was both unmistakable and unsettling.
Another, more immediate and equally vexing problem confronted Hitler in the aftermath of the July election. If many middle-class voters were disappointed with his refusal to enter the government, impatient party militants, especially within the SA, were frustrated that the “march order” for action had not been given. They were ready to storm the battlements of the moribund Republic, and they could not understand why the leadership had backed away from a violent confrontation.
During the July campaign the brutal wave of political terror that had swept Germany since 1928 had crashed with unparalleled fury, and the violence did not stop with the conclusion of the campaign. In the first week of August, while Hitler and the leadership consulted and negotiated, frustrated SA units, bitterly disappointed by the party’s failure to seize power, unleashed a ferocious terror campaign all across East Prussia and Silesia. The wave of bombings, shootings, and arson began on August 1 in Königsberg. Acting on their own initiative, groups of SA men, convinced that only revolutionary action could now thrust the NSDAP into power, went on a binge of political violence that terrorized an entire city. Within hours, the terror spread beyond the East Prussian capital, engulfing the entire province. On August 2, Silesia also erupted in violence as SA units, acting for the most part on orders from their regional and district leaders, went on a rampage against union halls, consumer cooperatives, department stores, newspaper offices, banks, and even a police station. Their targets were not only Social Democrats and Communists but citizens prominently associated with the Catholic Zentrum as well as liberals and conservatives. SA thugs assaulted Jews, Poles, and others identified as enemies of the party, raising the already high level of political violence to unparalleled heights. On August 9, the Reich government finally took action. Papen issued two emergency decrees to deal with the escalating political violence, stiffening penalties for terrorist actions and creating special courts to try cases arising from the new decrees. Convictions for political murder were now punishable by death, and, Papen made clear, the special courts would act swiftly.
Although dozens of people were killed or wounded in the first ten days of August, one particularly vicious episode caught the attention of the public throughout Germany. In the small Silesian village of Potempa, a band of drunken SA men broke into the home of an unemployed Polish worker with Communist leanings and bludgeoned him to death while his family looked on in horror. The Potempa murder was given wide national coverage, especially since the trial of the SA assailants was the first to be conducted under the new anti-terrorism act. The evidence was overwhelming, and the Nazi defendants were convicted in short order. On August 22, five received death sentences. With the nation’s attention riveted on the trial, Hitler, in a move that shocked many even on the usually sympathetic conservative right, sent a public telegram to the condemned men, deploring “this most monstrous blood verdict” and expressing his solidarity with them. “From this moment onward,” he wrote, “your freedom is a question of our honor; the struggle against a regime under which this was possible is our duty.”
Disaffection with the party’s policy of “legality” and its emphasis on electoral campaigning had grown steadily within the SA during this “year of elections” and by late summer had become a serious problem. “The mass of SA [men] don’t fully understand the repeated postponements of [decisive action],” one unit in Hessen-Darmstadt reported. “They are pressing for the attack. To them, an open fight is preferable to this incessant voting, which in the final analysis leads to nothing, or at least to very little.” From Hanover, SA leaders explained that “the activist SA man doesn’t understand why [we don’t] move against Hindenburg and Papen with all our might.” An SA leader in Baden put it most bluntly: “We, the SA don’t talk, we act. The Third Reich will not come through the babble of the political speakers and leaders but through the fists of the SA. We’ll clean house after November 6. The elections have no value.”
The mounting resentment voiced by so many Storm Troopers had been exacerbated by the fact that plans with specific timetables and objectives had been set for SA “actions” to be taken after each election in 1932. SA units had been on alarm status, ready to take “military action” to ensure the promised Nazi seizure of power. In each instance, these operations had been canceled, and the result was a growing exasperation within the SA.
Adding to the sense of desperation expressed by many SA men was their dismal economic situation. Many SA units were in desperate financial shape and were increasingly unable to provide aid to their often destitute members. These SA men, many of whom were unemployed, laid great hopes on a Nazi seizure of power to provide an immediate solution to their economic problems. This mounting economic pressure, some SA leaders were convinced, greatly aggravated their exasperation at the repeated postponements of the long-anticipated “march orders.” As an SA commander in Schleswig-Holstein warned in September, “the material and spiritual misery is so great with many SA men that they can no longer hold out.” The situation was critical. “The lofty political expectations of the recent past on the one hand and the economic despair, even hunger, on the other,” an SA leader from Baden urgently implored, “demand an act of deliverance.”
Although the intensity of these complaints was troubling to the political leadership, their substance hardly came as a surprise. Dissatisfaction with the lack of financial support from the party, with efforts of party leaders to subordinate the SA to their needs, and with the party’s emphasis on electoral campaigning had long been a source of friction. SA men and their leaders cherished their identity as “soldiers of the Third Reich,” military men belonging to an elite, uniformed party organization that stood outside the hierarchy, with special military tasks. But the party’s political leadership, and especially Goebbels and his propaganda staff, insisted that the Storm Troopers were “political soldiers,” important instruments to be employed in the party’s critical grassroots agitation. With their marches, parades, canvassing, and, not least, their violent confrontations with the left, the Brown Shirts were indispensable in the party’s campaign activities.
Some SA leaders tried to support the party’s efforts to change the organization’s self-image, but tensions between the party and the SA lingered, and the September morale reports were punctuated with complaints about party leaders who exceeded their authority, interfered in SA matters, or did not understand the special mission of the SA. In language usually reserved for the “bosses” of the Marxist left, some SA commanders continued to complain bitterly about local party leaders, dismissing them as “arrogant little political bureaucrats” and “paper pushers.” Party officials at all levels expressed mounting concern that the restless Storm Troopers were becoming sullen and unruly.
Aggravating these problems was the introduction in 1932 of uniforms for the NSDAP’s political functionaries. Much of the SA’s sense of elitism, of superiority over the other elements of the NSDAP, was bound up in its conception of its unique role as the uniformed branch of the party. To discover that all party officials were now entitled to wear uniforms was a harsh blow to SA self-esteem and yet another diminution of its status by the party. The September morale reports burned with the acid contempt with which the new uniforms were greeted by the SA rank and file. “The SA man does not recognize these National Socialists stuck in brown shirts and bursting with overflowing badges and braids,” the Dessau SA indignantly reported. “The magnificent preening of the political functionaries has provoked the indignation of the SA,” the Upper Bavaria SA acknowledged. “The SA man who proudly wears his plain brown shirt, which until now has been the robe of honor of the active fighter, cannot understand how the brown shirt can be debased in this way.”