Tuesday, March 21, 1933 at Potsdam, Germany
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.
Alas, Nazi Germany had now come into existence.