During a press conference on Friday where he attacked the government over price hikes, unemployment, GST tariffs and “the death of democracy,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the BJP cannot claim legitimacy because of winning elections alone. Hitler also came to power and won an election. Hitler also won elections in the past. And how did he win the election? Because the institutions of Germany were in his hands… Give me the whole structure and I’ll show you how to win elections.’
So how did Hitler come to power and consolidate it?
The Great Depression
The greatest economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, the Great Depression, lasted from 1929 to 1939, beginning with the stock market crash of October 1929. Germany saw a rapid rise in unemployment and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or Nazi Party tapped into the discontent of millions of unemployed voters.
From 1929 to 1932, the party’s membership increased. From about 8 lakh votes in the 1928 parliament elections, it rose to 140 lakh in July 1932 (or 38% of the total).
But when unemployment in Germany began to fall in late 1932, the Nazi party’s votes fell, too, to about 120 lakh (or 33% of the total) in the November 1932 elections.
Hitler, appointed leader of the Nazi Party in 1921, had attempted to seize power in a failed coup d’état in 1923. While in prison, he dictated the first part of Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”). After his early release in 1924, Hitler decided to regain power through elections, even as he consolidated support.
The 1932 elections
There were two national elections in 1932, the elections to the parliament or the Reichstag. In the German system, no one won outright, but Hitler got by far the majority of the votes. The NSDAP got its support from a cross section of people, Catholics and Protestants, city and country, men and women, young and old.
However, Hitler had to form a coalition because he failed to win 50% of the seats. The president also had to invite him to form the new government.
Some right-wing and conservative circles with access to the president convinced him to invite Hitler to form the government. They thought they could easily control him, while his voices would give them credibility.
However, Hitler insisted on the chancellorship, the top position within the government, even though his Nazi party had a smaller number of seats in the cabinet. An agreement was eventually reached and President Paul von Hindenburg invited Hitler – the head of a three-member coalition – to form the government. He became chancellor at the end of January 1933.
On January 31, 1933, Hitler called new elections to try to strengthen his position by gaining a majority.
On February 27, 1933, in the middle of the last days of the campaign, the Reichstag, the building of the German parliament, was mysteriously burned down by a fire. The government created an atmosphere of panic and terror, especially against the Nazis’ main rival, the Communists, leading to the arrest of more than 4,000 people. The Nazis claimed that the communists were planning a national uprising to “overthrow the Weimar Republic”.
The day after the fire, President Hindenburg signed an “Emergency Decree for the Protection of the German People,” giving the Nazis legal authority to go after opponents who were labeled traitors. The decree also removed fundamental personal freedoms, such as freedom of expression, the right to own property and the right to be tried before detention.
The terror of the Nazi government meant that many were terrified to vote at all, or voted out of fear in the elections that followed.
The elections took place on March 5, 1933 and had an extremely high turnout of 89%. The Nazis got 43.9% of the vote, a jump from the previous election, but still no majority.
On March 23, 1933, Hitler proposed an ‘enabling law’. It gave him the power to rule by decree rather than passing laws through the Reichstag and the president. In the atmosphere of fear after the Reichstag fire, this seemed legitimate to many.
But the law needed the support of two-thirds of the Reichstag. The Nazis had the support of the conservative DNVP and had banned the communist KPD. By then, many of the party’s opponents had already been relocated to the first of Hitler’s concentration camps, Dachau, which had been opened just a few days before the election. After Hitler won the Catholic Church, the Center Party also supported the law. Only the Marxist-influenced SPD opposed it.
The bill was passed on March 24, 1933 by 444 votes to 94. Although President Hindenburg and the Reichstag continued to exist, Hitler could now rule by decree.
On July 14, 1933, the Nazi Party was declared the sole political party in Germany. On Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler assumed the titles of Führer (“Leader”), Chancellor and Commander-in-Chief of the Army, except that he remained leader of the Nazi Party.
Membership in the Nazi Party became compulsory for all senior officials and bureaucrats.