How Did Hindenburg Undermine German Democracy in 1925-33?

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Paul von Hindenburg was the second president of the Weimar Republic, who had led Germany through economic prosperity of the Golden Age under Stresemann (1924-9), but also the series of severe crisis ranging from nationwide political revolts (1919-23) to worldwide economic depression (1929), that have influenced the Reichstag as a whole. For the first five years after taking office, Hindenburg fulfilled his duties of office with considerable dignity and decorum. Nevertheless, many claim that with the election of President Hindenburg, German democracy was doomed. There is a certain degree of truth in such statement, for Hindenburg had played a considerable role in undermining the German democracy in his later presidential years, through appointing Adolf Hitler (1933) chancellor of Germany in spite of his awareness of Hitler’s dictatorial qualities, and invoking Article 48 under which the government no longer functioned democratically.

Hindenburg’s biggest mistake was to make Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933, for this meant that an era of German elections and parliamentary life had come to an end, and an era of dictatorship and terror was soon to emerge.

As the following evidence proves, Hindenburg was clearly aware that giving power to Hitler would be a vital step in the downfall of the Weimar Germany. In 1932, although the number of seats for the Nazis in Reichstag fell from 230 to 197 , it still remained to be the largest Party. Von Papen therefore offered to bring Hitler into his new government by giving him the Vice-Chancellorship. However, Hitler was not tempted and reiterated his desire for the Chancellorship, and would accept nothing less as his aim was complete power, not the sharing of power. When Von Papen put these demands to Hindenburg, and offered a way for Hitler as Chancellor, Hindenburg refused, and Papen, unable to command a majority in the Reichstag had to resign. In consequence, Hitler told Hindenburg he would form a ‘presidential Cabinet, one whose powers would derive, not from the will or votes of parliament, but from the Presidency. Hindenburg could not accept these extraordinary terms and brought his negotiations with Hitler to an end, instructing his State Secretary to write to Hitler:“The President of the Reich thanks you for your willingness to become head of a presidential Cabinet. He considers, however, that he would not be doing his duty to the German people if he handed over his Presidential powers to the leader of a Party which has repeatedly emphasized its exclusiveness, and which has taken up a predominantly negative attitude. In these circumstances, the Present of the Reich cannot help fearing that a presidential Cabinet conducted by you would inevitably lead to a Party dictatorship, bringing in its train of bitter aggravation of the conflicts within the German people…”Hindenburg thus turned to a former army officer, General von Schleicher and asked him to take over the Chancellorship. Some may argue that the reason for Hindenburg’s dislike of Hitler was rather due to Hitler’s personal backgrounds (he was Austrian). However, through Hitler’s overly ambitious speeches and rebellious actions against the government shown in the prior years, (e.g. the Munich Beer Hall Pusch 1923) it is certain that Hindenburg was aware giving complete power to Hitler was not a clever idea, as it may inevitably lead to a Party dictatorship and a chaos within the nation. Nonetheless, he ended up giving power to the aggressive leader of the biggest Party of the Reich, undermining the German democracy. If it wasn’t Hindenburg who in 1933 became convinced that there was no longer an alternative to Hitler and appointed him the Chancellor due to his advisers who without exception favored a government of “national concentration” under Hitler’s leadership and the rumors that Schleicher was planning a putsch against Hindenburg, the vast human and ecological destruction of the twentieth century could have been avoided. Through Hindenburg’s decision of appointing Hitler chancellor, Hitler came to power legally and headed his country’s government. In correspondence to Hindenburg’s prediction, Hitler almost immediately forced the German legislature to give up its authority and made himself absolute dictator of Germany, taking the title of Fuhrer in 1934. Due to Hindenburg’s decision and his failing attempt to make Hitler his puppet, the Third Reich lasted only 12 years and yet in those few years the history of Germany and the world changed under the influence of one man.

Prior to Hitler’s gain of power, Hindenburg’s usage of Article 48 during his presidential years was also a significant factor which undermined German democracy. In 1930 Hindenburg appointed Bruning chancellor and agreed to sign presidential emergency decrees under Article 48 if the government faced opposition in the Reichstag. Therefore under Hindenburg’s governing and Bruning’s chancellorship the government no longer functioned democratically as Bruning relied on the president’s emergency powers to push through the legislation he desired. Article 48 gave the president special rights to issue emergency legislation, but the Reichstag could disapprove the president’s measure later. The president, in turn, could dissolve the Reichstag and call new elections. Thus, Hindenburg’s policies were collapsing the German democracy as he represented an abuse of the constitution’s emergency powers, which were initially meant to protect the democratic functioning of the constitution, not to disrupt it. Moreover, Hindenburg’s failing energy and senility (he was 85 when he got reelected in 1932) made him an easy prey to his rightist advisors as he was heavily influenced by those who surrounded him and was open to their suggestions. Thus the extremist parties were profiting simultaneously from Hindenburg’s ineffectiveness and the economic crisis which made enormous gains for the Nazis. After the Reichstag Fire in February 27 1933, Hindenburg’s inability to lead the Weimar to the road of peace was proved as he was later agreeing to Hitler’s demand of allowing him to use part of Article 48 which stripped people of their civil rights and allowed the police to make arrests without warrant, declaring a state of emergency. Hindenburg, though not fully trusting Hitler, nevertheless signed a ‘Decree for the Protection of the People and the State’ taking away freedom of speech and assembly. His signature eventually undermined the Constitution and destroyed basic liberties. Hitler was able to take advantage of Hindenburg’s senility and under Hindenburg, he and the Nazi Party could rise to full power.

The unintentional methods of how Hindenburg undermined German democracy may vary. Among the few, two noteworthy reasons include Hindenburg’s constant use of article 48 and his ineffective decision making skills which promoted Hitler as the chancellor of the Weimar Republic. However, it is inappropriate to hold him the most responsible character for the collapse of Weimar, for the constitution’s downfall was due to numerous interwoven factors such as the instable social, economic and political aspects during the period 1929-33. Indeed, the tragic fate of German democracy cannot be attributed to any one major factor, because to single out any one factor ignores the complexity of the situation. Nonetheless the second president of the Weimar Republic, Paul Von Hindenburg, in spite of all the achievements he had made in his early years, still remains to be regarded as an unimpressive leader who had given power to the brutal dictator—Adolf Hitler. The German democracy was thus doomed with his decision, for Hitler neither took nor gained power through elections, but was given power by Hindenburg, a man with growing senility and disinterest in politics. History of the Twentieth Century, Martin Gilbert, p. 818A History of the Twentieth Century, Martin Gilbert, p. 818A History of the Twentieth Century, Martin Gilbert, p. 818A History of the Twentieth Century, Martin Gilbert, p. 819Germany A New History, Hagen Schulze, p. 243Exploring World History, John R. O’ Connor, p.556