Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his leadership of the Nazi Party marked the end of German democracy in the 1930’s and ushered in political changes that led to World War II.

Summary of Event

On the morning of January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler took the oath of office from Weimar Republic president Paul von Hindenburg. That evening, thousands of torch-bearing Nazi Brownshirts, members of the paramilitary Sturm Abteilung Sturm Abteilung (SA), marched through the Brandenburg Gate past the new chancellor, celebrating their victory over the forces of German democracy. The Third Reich, which would bring the fanatical allegiance of the majority of Germans to Hitler and would lead to the vast holocaust of World War II, had begun. [kw]Hitler Comes to Power in Germany (Jan. 30, 1933)
[kw]Germany, Hitler Comes to Power in (Jan. 30, 1933)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period
Germany;Nazi Party
Nazi Party
[g]Germany;Jan. 30, 1933: Hitler Comes to Power in Germany[08250]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 30, 1933: Hitler Comes to Power in Germany[08250]
[c]World War II;Jan. 30, 1933: Hitler Comes to Power in Germany[08250]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 30, 1933: Hitler Comes to Power in Germany[08250]
Hitler, Adolf
Goebbels, Joseph
Göring, Hermann
Hindenburg, Paul von
Papen, Franz von
Röhm, Ernst
Schleicher, Kurt von

Hitler’s movement, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), also known as the Nazi Party, had begun with a handful of malcontents in Munich shortly after World War I. Many other racist-nationalist groups existed at the time, but Hitler’s ruthless, brilliant leadership made the NSDAP a special case. Although Hitler had first tried to grasp power in 1923 in the Beer Hall Putsch, Beer Hall Putsch (1923) Weimar democracy had prevailed, and by the time of the 1928 elections the Nazis appeared to be no more than an annoying, inconsequential party from the radical right. Their combination of nationalism, anti-Marxism, anti-Semitism, anti-big business “socialism,” militaristic agitation, and raucous oratory had gained them less than 3 percent of the popular vote. Yet, in less than five years, Hitler was chancellor of Germany, and he placed such key men as Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels in charge of the state. By the time of Hindenburg’s death in August, 1934, Hitler had secured totalitarian control of the state.

Historians noted a number of reasons for the Nazi’s rise. Few modern scholars accepted the early argument that Hitler’s victory was made inevitable by the German intellectual traditions that venerated the authority of the state, lauded military virtues, and praised the greatness of the German people. Nevertheless, this background provided traditions that Hitler could pervert and exploit. The Great Depression, which hit Germany soon after the 1929 stock market crash in the United States, gave Hitler’s movement its greatest boost. As business indicators fell and the unemployment lines grew, the Nazis scored impressive electoral gains.

Curiously, however, Hitler’s votes did not come from the unemployed; most of those were working-class people devoted to Marxism. If they were moderates, they voted for Social Democrats, if they were radicals, they voted for Communists. While research supports the contention that the Nazi voters appear to have come largely from the ranks of the middle classes, including shopkeepers, managers, small farmers, white-collar workers, civil servants, and other members of petite bourgeoisie, some studies indicate that Hitler’s support extended across a much broader section of society. For the most part, those who voted for Hitler’s NSDAP feared Marxist rhetoric and had abandoned the traditional bourgeois parties in frustration.

Nationalistic appeals based on denunciation of the Treaty of Versailles Versailles, Treaty of (1919) (1919), which had been imposed on Germany after World War I, heightened levels of support. Hitler, portrayed through careful and manipulative propaganda Propaganda;Nazi Germany as a humble soldier from the ranks and a member of the German “race” (although he was an Austrian by birth), appealed to the German sense of pride by calling for a greater Germany. The German people were not as lacking in democratic traditions as some commentators (including Hitler) believed, but their feelings about the Weimar Constitution were pragmatic, and when unstable parliamentary coalitions proved incapable handling the economic crisis, they were fully prepared to try more authoritarian solutions. The Nazis, with their vigorous and aggressive (if somewhat ill-defined) program, stood out in stark contrast to the modesty and fatigue which characterized the other middle-class parties. Hitler’s leadership, amplified by the Goebbels propaganda machine, brought many solid German burghers to his side.

The Nazis became the largest single power in the German multiparty system, but they never received an absolute majority in a free national election. It was the intrigues of reactionary politicians, rather than the votes of Germans, that put Hitler in power. In March of 1932, Hitler ran for president against the aging Hindenburg. Hitler received 30.1 percent of the votes to Hindenburg’s 49.6 percent, with the remaining votes going to the Communist candidate (13.2 percent), and two minor candidates. Clearly, Hitler had lost, but a second ballot was necessary because no one had received an absolute majority. In April, Hindenburg beat Hitler, receiving 53 percent of the vote as compared to Hitler’s 36.8 percent. Several state legislative elections followed, the most significant of which was in Prussia. The Nazis emerged as the largest single party there, with 36.2 percent of the votes.

In July, when the national parliament, the Reichstag, was elected, the Nazis won 37.3 percent of the vote. Together, the Nazis and the Communists—the antidemocratic forces, respectively, of the radical Right and the radical Left—held a majority of Reichstag seats. A government based on even the broadest coalition of the middle parties was impossible, so in November the German people voted again. This time the Nazi totals fell, giving Hitler and his party only 33.1 percent. The Nazi campaign coffers were depleted, and the flood of Nazi votes seemed to have crested and receded. Hindenburg refused to give Hitler the dictatorial powers he demanded as his price for supporting a government with Nazi votes in the Reichstag. Both Hitler and Goebbels became despondent.

Since midyear, the chancellorship had been held by Franz von Papen, a reactionary aristocrat once active in the Catholic Center Party. After the November elections, Papen found his position undermined not only by the Nazis but by General Kurt von Schleicher, army chief and an inveterate political manipulator. Hindenburg appointed Schleicher to serve as chancellor in December, 1932. The clever general tried to split the Nazi Party and form a coalition of left-wing Nazis, right-wing Social Democrats, and conservatives in order to keep Hitler from power. Schleicher’s plan gathered little support, and Papen worked behind the scenes to unseat Schleicher and create a coalition of Nazis and Nationalists (German National People’s Party) in which he would hold a key position. Papen assured Hindenburg and others on the traditional right that Hitler could be controlled by the conservatives in the cabinet. Indeed, only three Nazis—Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Frick, and Hitler himself—would be in the cabinet. Thus Hindenburg agreed to make the fatal appointment.

The first few months of Hitler’s rule were crucial to his success: During that period he accomplished a revolution after coming to power. Rather than controlling Hitler as they had planned, Papen and the other conservatives found themselves outmaneuvered by him at every turn. Hitler skillfully dismantled the constitutional guarantees he had sworn to uphold and went on to establish a totalitarian dictatorship in the years that followed. Upon Hindenburg’s death in August of 1934, Hitler assumed his powers as president and exacted an oath of personal loyalty from the military.


After Hitler’s rise to power, the Nazi revolution occurred in four phases. First, Hitler prevailed on Hindenburg to call new elections for the Reichstag. Nazis now controlled the police, so Brownshirt terrorism went unchecked while the opposition parties labored under severe handicaps. A few days before the election, a former Communist Dutch arsonist set fire to the Reichstag building. Quickly, the Nazis fabricated evidence of a Communist uprising and promulgated emergency decrees that suspended civil rights. The decrees were never lifted. Even with all the power of the state behind them, the Nazis missed a majority, receiving 43.9 percent of the votes on March 5, 1933.

The second phase was the forcing through the Reichstag of the Enabling Act (1933), Enabling Act (1933) which was written to give Hitler dictatorial powers for four years and required a two-thirds vote of the Reichstag for passage. The Communists had been forcibly excluded, and many Social Democrats had been threatened and did not appear. Nevertheless, Hitler needed the votes of the Catholic Center Party, so he combined honeyed words and threats to gain its support. When the vote came, only the Social Democratic Party voted against Hitler. As a result, his dictatorship was legitimated on March 23, 1933.

The third phase of the Nazi revolution was the policy of Gleichschaltung
Gleichschaltung (coordination), which subordinated every organization to the Nazi state. All other political parties dissolved more or less “voluntarily” (that is, without being physically forced to do so). The mass media and the arts were coordinated under Goebbels’s leadership, and youth organizations, unions, professional societies, and even singing groups and garden clubs found it prudent either to amalgamate with the parallel Nazi organizations or simply to go out of business. Coordination was a process rather than a single action, so it overlapped other phases of the Nazi takeover, and its results were uneven. Within the churches, for example, pockets of independence continued to exist, although the vast majority of both Protestants and Catholics formally accepted Nazi dominance. Anyone who actively and publicly opposed coordination faced the prospect of joining thousands of dissidents in the concentration camps.

The fourth phase included two events in 1934 that placed the capstone on Hitler’s control of the state. In late June, rumors of a putsch—an attempt to overthrow the government—by Ernst Röhm and certain other “radicals” within the SA provided an excuse for a bloody purge. During what has come to be known as the Night of the Long Knives or the Great Blood Purge, Great Blood Purge between 150 and 200 potential or real opponents of the regime were shot on Hitler’s orders by the Schutzstaffel (SS), SS (Schutzstaffel) which was directed by Heinrich Himmler. Röhm and a number of other prominent conservatives were killed, including Schleicher. On August 2, 1934, the eighty-six-year-old Hindenburg finally died, and Hitler swiftly assumed the powers of the deceased president and had the military swear a personal oath of loyalty to him as führer (leader). He then arranged for a plebiscite in which 89.9 percent of the valid votes cast supported him. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period
Germany;Nazi Party
Nazi Party

Further Reading

  • Abel, Theodore. Why Hitler Came into Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Originally published in 1938, Abel’s study remains an analytic cornerstone in the question of why Hitler was successful in becoming Germany’s leader. This edition has a foreword by Thomas Childers.
  • Allen, William Sheridan. The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930-1935. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965. Allen’s book shows the local impact of Nazism and how the grassroots organization and support of the party made possible Hitler’s ultimate seizure of power.
  • Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Remains one of the best, most thorough standard biographies of Hitler. Shows how Hitler carried out his “revolution after power.”
  • Childers, Thomas. The Nazi Voter. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. In this statistical analysis of German voting behavior, Childers contends that Hitler’s supporters came not simply from an indistinguishable middle class, but from very diverse backgrounds.
  • Flood, Charles Bracelen. Hitler: The Path to Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. An insightful addition to accounts of Hitler and his rise to power, this work provides an exhaustive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources.
  • Hamann, Brigitte. Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Focuses on Hitler’s years in Vienna. Includes photographs, select bibliography, and index.
  • Hamilton, Richard F. Who Voted for Hitler? Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. In this controversial book, Hamilton rejects the traditional centrist argument—that of the dominant lower-middle-class support for the NSDAP—and suggests alternative explanations for the Nazi rise to power.
  • Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Comprehensive account of the Nazi treatment of the Jews of Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Graphically illustrates how the ideas Hitler expressed in Mein Kampf led directly to unspeakable suffering for millions of people. Includes excellent bibliography and index.
  • Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Reprint. New York: Mariner Books, 1998. No commentary can illustrate Hitler’s ideas as well as Mein Kampf itself. Hitler’s clumsy and often pompous prose does not prevent the reader from understanding that his program called for the destruction of many basic human rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of association, free enterprise, and sexual freedom. Manheim’s translation is among the best available.
  • Maier, Charles S., Stanley Hoffmann, and Andrew Gould, eds. The Rise of the Nazi Regime: Historical Reassessments. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986. This collection of essays begins with an informative overview by Charles Maier, while subsequent contributors address the collapse of Weimar and the Nazi rise to power.

Beer Hall Putsch

Mein Kampf Outlines Nazi Thought

Reichstag Fire

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

Enabling Act of 1933

Great Blood Purge

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss

Munich Conference


Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact