On this day in 1934, Adolf Hitler, already chancellor, is also elected president of Germany in an unprecedented consolidation of power in the short history of the republic.
In 1932, German President Paul von Hindenburg, old, tired, and a bit senile, had won re-election as president, but had lost a considerable portion of his right/conservative support to the Nazi Party. Those close to the president wanted a cozier relationship to Hitler and the Nazis. Hindenburg had contempt for the Nazis’ lawlessness, but ultimately agreed to oust his chancellor, Heinrich Bruning, for Franz von Papen, who was willing to appease the Nazis by lifting the ban on Hitler’s Brown Shirts and unilaterally canceling Germany’s reparation payments, imposed by the Treaty of Versailles at the close of World War I.
But Hitler was not appeased. He wanted the chancellorship for himself. Papen’s policies failed on another front: His authoritarian rule alienated his supporters, and he too was forced to resign. He then made common cause with Hitler, persuading President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor and himself vice-chancellor. He promised the president that he would restrain Hitler’s worst tendencies and that a majority of the Cabinet would go to non-Nazis. As Hindenburg’s current chancellor could no longer gain a majority in the Reichstag, and Hitler could bring together a larger swath of the masses and a unified right/conservative/nationalist coalition, the president gave in. In January 1933, Hitler was named chancellor of Germany.
But that was not enough for Hitler either. In February 1933, Hitler blamed a devastating Reichstag fire on the communists (its true cause remains a mystery) and convinced President Hindenburg to sign a decree suspending individual and civil liberties, a decree Hitler used to silence his political enemies with false arrests. Upon the death of Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler proceeded to purge the Brown Shirts (his storm troopers), the head of which, Ernst Roem, had began voicing opposition to the Nazi Party’s terror tactics. Hitler had Roem executed without trial, which encouraged the army and other reactionary forces within the country to urge Hitler to further consolidate his power by merging the presidency and the chancellorship. This would make Hitler commander of the army as well. A plebiscite vote was held on August 19. Intimidation, and fear of the communists, brought Hitler a 90 percent majority. He was now, for all intents and purposes, dictator.