The Weimar Republic’s last ever election took place on this day – March 5, 1933 – amid massive violence, intimidation and Nazi Stormtroopers’ free reign to carry guns to ostentatiously raid houses, serve as auxiliary policemen, and patrol the streets after the Reichstag Fire Decree had been passed five days earlier.
647 seats were up for grabs today and even though the NSDAP had been mobilizing and inflicting the same combination of terror, repression and propaganda all across Germany, they only managed to secure 43.9% of the vote, earning them 288 seats and thus falling well short of the 2/3 majority that they’d been banking on to vote out the democracy and install a dictatorship under Hitler and a one party state.
In other words, not even 1 out of 2 voters voted for the Nazis; as a matter of fact, the Nazis never managed to win an absolute majority in any state or federal election since their rise to electoral significance at the end of the 1920s.
Yet, undeniably, over 17 million people voted for the Nazis in this
election with another 3.1 million people voting for the various Nationalist parties. In short, these are over 20 million people who rejected democracy, the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ernst Thälmann’s Communist Party (KPD) finished as the third largest party, winning 81 seats and just over 12% of the vote.
In short, at a time when over 6 million Germans were out of work – making up 1/3 of the total German labor industry – many voters were frantically looking to the far left and the far right to solve their country’s catastrophic economic and social problems, decidedly and sadly highlighting the mistrust that so many voters felt in their young democracy at that time.
It was 87 years ago today that one of the most controversial events in modern German history occurred when the Reichstag – the national parliament building and symbol of Germany’s young democracy – was the target of an arson attack just shy of a month after Hitler’d been appointed Chancellor of Germany.
The person apprehended at the scene and the one whom the Nazis not only blamed for the crime but eventually executed for it, was a 23 year old unemployed Dutch construction worker named Marinus van der Lubbe who had been on a lengthy trek across Central Europe, trying to work his way to the Soviet Union, a state which he greatly admired. As a teenager, he trained to become a mason, entered the Dutch labor movement and joined the Communist youth movement not long thereafter. But he soon came to dislike the party’s strict code of discipline and authoritarian structure, and left it in 1931 to join a radical anarchy-syndicalist organization. After getting as far as Poland, decided to head back west and arrived in Berlin on February 18, 1933.
With the Nazis in power, he felt that the left was being ruthlessly suppressed. A believer in direct actions since his anarchy-syndicalist days, he thought it was time for the unemployed and those who felt deserted on all levels to protest against the bourgeois state and send a direct blow to it, and he decided that he was going to be the one to do it.
Arson was the method he chose.
After unsuccessfully attempting to burn down a welfare office in the Berlin district of Neukoelln, and then that district’s city hall, and finally the former Berlin royal palace three days prior, he decided to spend his last remaining money on matches and lighters on the morning of the 27th, and as historian Richard J. Evans would write – “he sought out the supreme symbol of the bourgeois political order that, he thought, had made his life and that of so many other unemployed young men a misery, and decided to burn down the Reichstag.”
Even though several leading historians on the subject, like Evans, believe that van der Lubbe most likely set the fire, it still isn’t exactly certain that he had. Yet, what’s important to see is the bigger picture in all of this.
The Reichstag fire came one week before the very critical March 5th national elections were going to take place – elections on which the Nazis were banking (as already the largest party currently in the Reichstag) to increase their representation in the parliament and win a 2/3 majority of the seats so that they themselves could democratically vote out the democracy and install a one party dictatorship under Hitler. Yet, this fire came as a godsend to Hitler and the Nazis as it conveniently enabled them to use the fire as a pretext that a communist uprising was occurring and thus convince President Paul von Hindenburg to take action the following day by using his presidential powers to evoke Article 48 (an article that allowed the Weimar president to legally rule by decree) of the Weimar Constitution and as a result, suspend basic civil liberties and essentially bestow ultimate power to the Cabinet (i.e. Hitler).
Therefore, after the Nazis successfully convinced old Hindenburg that the government was under attack, Hindenburg issued the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (also referred to as the the Reichstag Fire Decree) to:
– Immediately put restrictions on free expression of opinions, including the freedom of the press and on the right of assembly and association
– House searches without warrants were now permissible
– Mail and telephone privacy now suspended
– Restrictions on property rights were now permissible beyond all legal limits.
In other words, the Reichstag Fire Decree would now ultimately serve as the “legal” basis for the imprisonment of anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis including politicians, journalists, writers and basically anyone who’d been loyal to the Weimar constitution. This decree, ‘valid until further notice,’ would now provide the legal pretext for everything that was about to be unleashed in the next few months as the National Socialists continued on their path to seize ultimate power in absolute earnest.
Moreover, because of the events that would unfold so perfectly well for Hitler and the Nazis after the fire – as they now began to eliminate anyone who stood in their way of establishing a one party state – this is why it’s believed that van der Lubbe didn’t set the fire, but rather it was the Nazis themselves. Books have been published on this and students working on PhDs have argued this; yet at the end of the day, we’ll never know for sure who was fully responsible – it’s indeed one of the greatest mysteries of modern German history.
Professor Eric Weitz and author of the book, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy once said in a lecture: “It’s not so important to understand who set the fire; it’s more important to understand who benefited from it – which of course were the Nazis.”
After the Kingdom of Prussia was established in 1701, its kings – especially Frederick the Great – would quickly transform it into a formidable military state and expand its hegemony deep into current day Poland and across what is much of northern Germany today. And it would be this so-called “Iron Kingdom” that would create a single unified German state for the first time in 1871.
Unfortunately for Prussia, its reputation would be tarnished after Hitler came to power in 1933 as the National Socialists would fuse this ‘old glorious’ history to their ‘new’ regime, making it obvious to the western Allies by the end of WWII that – according to historian Christopher Clark – Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of ‘Prussianism’. As a matter of fact, as early as 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress in September of that year, “This is one thing I want to make perfectly clear: “When Hitler and the Nazis go out, the Prussian military clique must go with them. The war-breeding gangs of militarists must be rooted out of Germany.”
After Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender at the end of WWII, it didn’t take the occupying Allies long to quickly see that this defeated corpse that was Prussia needed to finally be ended. The Allied Control Council – established under Part II, Section A, Point 1 of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 – soon began to discuss its future in the summer of 1946 when a member of the British Allied Control Authority submitted a memorandum to the Council putting the case against Prussia rather succinctly:
“I need not point out that Prussia has been a menace to European security for the last two hundred years. The survival of the Prussian State, even if only in name, would provide a basis for any irredentist claims which the German people may later seek to put forward, would strengthen German militarist ambitions, and would encourage the revival of an authoritarian, centralised Germany which in the interests of all it is vital to prevent.”
Therefore, it was on this day – February 25, 1947 – that the Allied Control Council issued Control Council Law Number 46 liquidating the State of Prussia, its central Government, and all its agencies. Technically the Nazis had already done this when they issued the “Law on the Reconstruction of the Reich” on January 30, 1934 which dissolved all federal states and placed them under the authority of governors who were now going to be appointed by Hitler himself, but Control Council Law 46 had now made the dissolution of Prussia official.
Today, its name is rarely seen, only a handful of structures exist to remind us of its past, and Prussia’s once humongous territory has now been divided up among nine federal states within the borders of current day Germany.
It was 75 years ago today – February 11, 1945 – that the original “Big Three” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin – would meet together for the final time with the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, which was the second of three WWII wartime summits between the three heads of government of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
The key points on the agenda at Yalta were major questions related to military tactics in the Pacific War and post-war politics in Europe. The Soviets pledged to join the war against Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe, and Germany was to be divided into four occupation zones (which involved the French) and the establishment of a “United Nations” organization was also agreed upon.
Yet, the question of Poland and its borders would dominate much of the eight day summit, as it would five months later when the ‘new’ Big Three would arrive at Potsdam for their final wartime summit. At Yalta, Poland’s western frontier was left undefined, but it was agreed that it would receive “considerable” territorial compensation from Germany, while Stalin ‘pledged’ to permit free and democratic elections in Poland based on the Atlantic Charter that had been signed in 1941. Yet, as soon would become the case, massive intimidation, electoral fraud and a wave of persecution would be unleashed under communist cadres that had the protection of the occupying Red Army throughout Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Historians claim that it was finally made obvious to Churchill at Yalta that nothing could change the reality that Stalin had conquered Poland and would thus decide its future, realizing that it wouldn’t be long before it was a fully pledged Soviet satellite state.
After the final pictures were taken, Churchill would say goodbye to his close friend, President Roosevelt, whom he had a very special bond with, for the final time, and leave Yalta deeply embittered, realizing that the cause for which Great Britain had entered the war – a free Poland – had been lost.
In short, the Yalta Conference divided Europe between those states that were under the rule of the Red Army and those that were to join the West in one association or another (de facto, not formally). It would also divide Germany ostensibly into occupation zones, but ultimately into separate states.
Thus, it’s largely accepted among historians that Yalta ignited the beginning of the Cold War that would last for the next half century.
Smyser, William R. (1999). From Yalta To Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-06605-8
Saturday, April 3, 1948 at the White House in Washington D.C.
WWII had ended just over two years earlier and the winter of 1946-1947 had been the worst one in living memory. With mass starvation, chaos and the spread of communism riddling Western Europe since the end of the war, a comprehensive system of economic aid for Europe had now finally come to the fore.
Its official title was the European Recovery Program (ERP), but history and the world would better know it as the ‘Marshall Plan’, named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall – one of the most highly respected and most popular persons in the United States at that time.
What Secretary Marshall and President Truman were proposing was not military action, but an economic plan that would involve a delay in the withdrawal of American forces from Europe and a program of financial aid that would pump anywhere between $8-17 billion dollars into the economies of receptive countries. This money would then be used to buy food, resources and other goods from the United States in the hopes that it would help them combat mass starvation, rejuvenate their economies, rebuild utterly destroyed areas, and prevent their democracies from rapidly moving toward the Left – something that was seen as a real danger at the time.
Therefore, it was on this day 71 years ago that U.S. President Harry S. Truman signed the Marshall Plan, initially granting $13 billion dollars in economic assistance to 16 European nations. With this coming a little over a year after Greece and Turkey had been granted $400 million dollars in aid, no other president in U.S. history has ever approved so much money to aid people who weren’t Americans.
The success of the Plan has been criticized by modern historians who argue that some recipient nations had already been experiencing economic recovery, while others negatively argue that it strengthened American economic imperialism abroad. Yet, what’s important to keep in mind is that this stimulus came at a time when a psychological boost was badly needed as countries were still struggling to cope with the economic and human aftermath of WWII, as well as the terrible aforementioned winter.
In short, many people at that time – who were living history forward and not backward – understood the Marshall Plan as a compassionate program and found it to be a real badge of honor for the Truman administration.
“Some of the White House Staff suggested to President Truman that they didn’t much like the idea of General Marshall getting credit for it, but Truman was very firm on that: ‘The Congress will do anything that George Marshall wants. If my name is on it, it will probably become controversial. I don’t want it to become controversial. I want it to succeed. It will be called the Marshall Plan and we will have no more talk about changing the name.’”
– Administrative Assistant to the President, George M. Elsey, on President Truman
With the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (The Reichstag Fire Decree) only 22 days old and having served as the “legal” basis for the arrests of thousands of opponents of the Nazis up until that point, Hitler and the National Socialists were on the brink of fully recruiting the remaining nationalist parties in the Reichstag to pass a law that would turn over all government functions to Hitler himself.
Before this could happen, as far as Hitler was concerned, a ceremony that would underscore the National Socialists’ politics of propaganda and terror needed to be triumphantly held to illustrate a glorified connection between the traditional powers of the “old Reich” and Hitler’s “young” and “dynamic” Nazi movement.
Always the dramatist, Nazi propaganda head Josef Goebbels staged the inauguration of the new Reichstag (following the national election of 5 March) in the “Day of Potsdam” by convincing President Paul von Hindenburg to go to Potsdam and give his blessing to the new Nazi regime 86 years ago today. Even today’s date – March 21 – had symbolic significance to the “old Reich” for it was the date on which Otto von Bismarck had first opened the all-German Reichstag following the German Unification of 1871.
In addition to a motorcade parade through Potsdam, the main ceremony took place in the Garrison Church, located just blocks away from the Potsdam City Palace – which had served as the second official seat of the dynastic Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Kings of Prussia, and German Emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for nearly three centuries. Moreover, the Garrison Church had been the final resting place of Hitler’s hero and one of the most influential monarchies in European history, Frederick the Great.
With the last Crown Prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty – along with his brothers – in attendance, the ceremony got underway just after noon local time. Hindenburg marched down the nave of the church while decked out in his gray field marshal’s uniform and carrying his spiked helmet in his left hand. Just before reaching the church’s Imperial Gallery, the old general paused and saluted the empty pew of the last Prussian King and German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Hindenburg then reached the altar, turned, and gave a brief homily that would consecrate the Nazi regime:
“May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself.”
Hitler, who was wearing a black suit with striped pants (a far cry from his usual brown stormtrooper uniform and high boots), responded with:
“Neither the Kaiser nor the government nor the nation wanted the war. It was only the collapse of the nation which compelled a weakened race to take upon itself, against its most sacred convictions, the guilt for this war.”
Having gone to the altar himself, Hitler looked down on Hindenburg, who had taken a seat in the front pew near Goebbels and Reichstag President Hermann Goering. Hitler then looked at Hindenburg and addressed the “old Reich” directly:
“By a unique upheaval in the last few weeks, our national honor has been restored and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated. We pay you homage. A protective providence places you over the new forces of our nation.”
After uttering these words, Hitler stepped down from the altar, bowed to Hindenburg, and shook his hand – producing one of the most infamous photographs in modern history.
Yet at the end of the day, this melodrama inside the Garrison Church at Potsdam was more than a triumphant ceremony. This was the moment in which Hitler – the leader of the young and dynamic Nazi movement – proclaimed the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich” in the presence of the symbols of Germany’s glorified past.
A national mood of euphoria in this new “Volksgemeinschaft” (People’s Community) had been born and it unfortunately resonated with broad parts of German society throughout the country. Along with this wave of enthusiasm, the collective optimism of the German people – which hadn’t been felt since 1914 – began to blossom as well, with only limited opposition to this new national hysteria.
It was exactly 100 years ago today that Adolf Hitler delivered the Nazi Party’s 25 Point Platform to around 2,000 people in Munich’s famous beerhall, the Hofbräuhaus. This event is often regarded as the founding of the Nazi Party.
The Nazi Party’s roots actually go back to March 7, 1918 when political factions with exotic names were popping up all over Germany at the end of WWI. One of these was called the “Free Labor Committee for a Good Peace,” which was founded by a Munich locksmith named Anton Drexler. The little party consisted of some forty railwaymen and different friends of Drexler who were all banded together in a spirit of fierce nationalism, anti-Semitism, and support for the war effort.
Following the German defeat in WWI, however, the “Free Labor Committee for a Good Peace” reinvented itself and became the “German Worker’s Party (DAP)”. It was on September 12, 1919, that Hitler stumbled upon Drexler’s party after his military superiors had sent him to investigate it to draw up a report on its activities.
He would eventually join the party and become its 55th party member on January 1, 1920.
Hitler quickly helped Drexler to realize that the party had to have a clear program (which it certainly didn’t have at the time) in order for it to have an effective voice. Together, the two men would sit down and write the 25 Points of their party’s program, which was completed on February 6. 1920.
Among preaching nationalism in its highest form, the 25 Points focused on calling on Germany to reject the Treaty of Versailles, that Germany take back its territories that had been lost after WWI, and that only those who have German blood can become citizens (which would exclude Jews).
A little over two weeks later, on this day, Hitler gave the first reading of the 25 Points to a Hofbräuhaus that was filled to capacity; and even included a large number of communists spoiling for a fight among the around 2,000 people in attendance.
From this point onward the party would be referred to as the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (the Nazi Party) or (NSDAP), whose acronym would become a byword for tyranny of the greatest form, synonymous with the perishing of millions of innocent lives, and a movement responsible for one of the largest catastrophes – of unprecedented proportions – in world history.
Monday, February 23, 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Two hundred and forty-two years ago today, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, better known as Baron von Steuben, arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to help train Commander George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Born just 90 miles southwest of Berlin, he joined the Prussian Army when he was 17 years old and served as second lieutenant during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). After earning the rank of captain in 1761, he would then serve as a secretary of the General Staff to Prussian King Frederick the Great. This experience would arm him with a wealth of knowledge and even give him the opportunity to take part in special courses of military instruction that were delivered by Frederick the Great himself.
In 1777 von Steuben met Benjamin Franklin during a visit to Paris. Franklin certainly realized the potential of having an officer with Prussian general staff training in the Continental Army, but he wasn’t in a position to offer von Steuben a position or salary at that time. It wouldn’t be until later that year that von Steuben was introduced to Commander in Chief George Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s Service,” an exaggeration of his actual credentials that most likely was a mistranslation of his service record. In any event, he was advanced travel funds and left Europe from Marseilles, arriving in New Hampshire in December 1777.
On this day – Monday, February 23, 1778 – he reported to the Continental Army’s famous encampment, Valley Forge, and reported for duty as a volunteer. According to a soldier’s impression of von Steuben (on display at the Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania today):
“The Baron was of the ancient fabled God of War…he seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea. He turned the volunteers into a great army.”
He would soon serve as Inspector General and Major General of the Continental Army and is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army in teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines. Eventually, he would serve as Washington’s chief of staff in the final years of the war.
In 1911 the United States Congress presented the city of Potsdam with a memorial statue of von Steuben. Unfortunately, this was melted down after WWII, but it was replaced in the mid 1990s with a replica that now stands near the site of the original one in the heart of Potsdam’s Neuer Markt.
And on the third Saturday in September, the annual German-American Steuben Parade is held in New York City to honor von Steuben as one of the most influential German-Americans who profoundly contributed to America’s fight for independence, as well as for his training the thousands of young American soldiers who fought to achieve victory in the American Revolutionary War.
On a cold, February afternoon in Munich 77 years ago today, 21 year old Sophie Scholl, a pioneer and active member within the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, was found guilty of high treason and beheaded by a guillotine in Munich for distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich with her brother, Hans.
For decades, she’s been seen as a leading figure of the resistance movement against the policies of the Nazi government, having demonstrated a profound amount of courage and a great deal of social dissent in a controlled society of violent repression, censorship, and conformist pressure. At her trial she said the following:
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
The Nazi court allowed no testimony for Scholl and the other defendants; this quote was her only defense.
In 2003 the government of Bavaria placed her bust in the Walhalla Temple, something that would’ve been inconceivable when it opened in the 19th century (let alone during the Nazi period). Later that year, the German television network ZDF invited people from around Germany to participate in the so-called “Unsere Besten” (Our Best), a nationwide competition to choose the top ten most important Germans of all time. Young voters helped Scholl and her brother to finish in fourth place, above the likes of Einstein, Bach, Goethe, and Bismarck.
Else Gebel, who shared a cell with Scholl, recorded her last words before being taken away to be executed:
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause…? It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted…”
Berlin, 11:30AM, January 30. 1933, Wilhelmstraße 73
Despite losing 2 million votes in the November national election of 1932 and thus losing 34 seats in the Reichstag in Berlin, the NSDAP still remained the largest and sadly the most popular political party at a time when economic and political instability riddled Germany’s young democracy.
And after Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher failed to secure parliamentary support at the beginning of 1933, the Catholic Center Party’s leader, Franz von Papen, and his cronies, led negotiations with President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler German chancellor, believing that they could tame him by dominating his cabinet with the old conservative elite.
And so #OTD 86 years ago at around 11:30 in the morning, arguably the biggest blow to Germany’s young democracy up until that point came when Hindenburg appointed Hitler as German Chancellor at the Presidential Palace on Wilhemstraße in Berlin.
While Herman Göring and Wilhelm Frick were the only two other cabinet members from the NSDAP, the new Vice-chancellor, von Papen, continued to assure all doubters that the vulgar, uneducated and inexperienced in government Nazis would be easy to control stating, “You are wrong. We’ve engaged him for ourselves…within two months, we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.”
That Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor was no ordinary change of government became immediately clear, as his Propaganda Minister, Josef Göbbels, organized a torchlit parade consisting of members of the SA, SS, and Steel Helmets that went through the Brandenburg Gate and through Berlin. One pro-Nazi newspaper enthusiastically estimated that 700,000 marchers took part in the parade, while less than amused papers put the number at just over 100,000, and the hostile sources put the number of uniformed marchers at no more than 20,000. Crowds of onlookers lined the streets to watch the marchers and the spectacle was typical of the kind of stage-management which German society could now expect from Göbbels’s propaganda machine.
Even the 86 year old Hindenburg, whose health was deteriorating fast and whose mind was becoming more senile by the day, took some interest in the parade. One of his entourage later told the British writer John Wheeler-Bennett: He had been standing stiffly at the window for a while when his attention began to slip and his mind to wander back to the glorious early days. “Ludendorff!”, the befuddled old man said, “How well your men are marching, and what a lot of prisoners they’ve taken!”
Needless to say, the person directly responsible for appointing Hitler as Chancellor of Germany earlier in the day was confused. But many people who took part in that evening’s celebration weren’t. Hindenburg was presented by the National press as the central figure in the jubilation, helping several people – who had felt nothing but shame and disgrace for the previous 14 years since the end of WWI – feel a revival of the spirit of 1914 that was felt at the outbreak of the Great War. These would all be sentiments with which every Nationalist could agree.
Unfortunately, von Papen’s and his cronies’ careless dismissal of Hitler and the NSDAP – as well as Hindenburg’s infamous appointment – can be seen as some of the vital roots to what would later become a world tragedy of unprecedented proportions.
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Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Group ISBN 1-59420-004-1