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German Federal Archive

On This Day: Hitler Approved as Fuehrer

August 19, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Aug. 19, 1934,  German voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Chancellor Adolf Hitler assuming the powers of the German presidency, thereby granting him absolute power over Germany.

Hitler Becomes Fuehrer and Chancellor

Nazi Party Chairman Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and over the next year and a half consolidated his powers through a series of legal legislative means and violent actions. By August 1934, the only possible check to Hitler’s power was elderly President Paul von Hindenburg.

Hindenburg died on Aug. 2; the Nazi-controlled legislature, the Reichstag, immediately passed a law retroactive to Aug. 1 that called for the powers of the president to be transferred to Hitler, who would rule as Fuehrer (a title meaning “leader” or “guide” that Hitler had used as Nazi Party leader) and Reichskanzler (chancellor).

“The law was technically illegal since it violated provisions of the German constitution concerning presidential succession as well as the Enabling Act of 1933 which forbade Hitler from altering the presidency,” explains The History Place. “But that didn't matter much anymore. Nobody raised any objections. Hitler himself was becoming the law.”

In order to increase the legitimacy of his power, Hitler ordered a national referendum to approve his new position. In an Aug. 14 speech, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s personal secretary, declared, “By voting yes on 19 August, the German people will demonstrate to the world that we see in Adolf Hitler the Führer given to us by providence. We Germans approve of what he has done at home and abroad for Germany and trust his decisions for the future. Germany sees Adolf Hitler as Hindenburg’s proper successor. The entire German people now gives Hitler the name of honor that the National Socialist movement has long given him: the Führer! This word is more that a title, it is a confession and a certainty: My Führer!”

Hitler’s approval was a mere formality: nearly 90 percent of the voters voted in his favor. The fact that nearly 10 percent of voters bravely voted against him suggested that his popularity was not as great as expected. Nevertheless, Hitler had successfully seized absolute control over the German state.

“The endorsement gives Chancellor Hitler, who four years ago was not even a German citizen, dictatorial powers unequaled in any other country, and probably unequaled in history since the days of Genghis Khan. He has more power than Joseph Stalin in Russia, who has a party machine to reckon with; more power than Premier Mussolini of Italy who shares his prerogative with the titular ruler; more than any American President ever dreamed of,” wrote Frederick T. Birchall in The New York Times. “No other ruler has so widespread power nor so obedient and compliant subordinates. The question that interests the outside world now is what Chancellor Hitler will do with such unprecedented authority.”

Background: Rise of Hitler

Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in Braunau am Inn, a town on the border of Austria and Germany, and grew up with a strong sense of German nationalism. As a young man, he lived in Vienna on his father’s pension, but failed to make a living as an artist.

He admired Germany and enlisted in the German Army during World War I. His fellow soldiers were impressed by his bravery and commitment to the cause, but they also found him to be a loner and prone to frequent outbursts against Jews and communists.

He was devastated when Germany surrendered and accepted the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He blamed the Jews and communists for losing the war, and aspired to rebuild Germany into a world power.

He joined the German Workers’ Party in 1919; he soon became its leader renamed it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party. He attempted a coup d’etat—the Beer Hall Putsch—in 1923, but it failed and he was imprisoned.

The Nazis gained supporters after the coup, appealing to Germans who wanted strong, nationalist leadership in place of the weak and ineffective Weimar government. Although the government had issued bans on the party, it won many seats in the 1930 election and became a viable political party.

Hitler became chancellor of Germany on Jan. 30, 1933. Immediately, he set in place a plan to take full control of the country’s political and economic institutions using a policy called “Gleichschaltung,” meaning a switch to the same wavelength.

On Feb. 27, the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament, was set on fire. Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe was found inside, and the Nazis claimed that he was part of a communist plot to overthrow the government.

The following day, Hitler issued a decree “for the Protection of the People and the State,” commonly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree. It stripped citizens of their constitutional liberties and allowed the Nazi government to arrest communist leaders. Many historians believe that the Reichstag fire was started by the Nazis to justify the decree.

Hitler’s coalition government would gain a small majority in the March general elections and, with communist officials in prison, pass the Enabling Act on March 23. It stripped the Reichstag of its legislative powers and created the legal basis for Hitler’s dictatorship.

Only the Social Democratic Party voted against the act. Chairman Otto Wels, speaking before the legislature and a crowd of Nazi brownshirts there to intimidate delegates, gave an emotional speech decrying the Enabling Act. “Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not our honor,” he declared.

With full control of the country, the Nazi Party outlawed the Social Democratic Party, leaving no parties in opposition to the government. It then forced smaller parties to disband, even though they had helped him rise to power.

Hitler as Fuehrer

As Fuehrer of Nazi Germany, Hitler launched a genocidal campaign against Jews and other lesser peoples such as gypsies and homosexuals. The Nazis also invaded and conquered much of Eastern and Western Europe, initiating the Second World War. Hitler committed suicide in April 1945 as the Third Reich stood in ruin and on the brink of surrender.

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to World War II provides the best links for learning about the war and the Holocaust. The Learning About the Holocaust page teaches you about the events and people associated with it.

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