Myth: Democracy elected Hitler to power.

Fact: Hitler used backroom deals, not votes, to come to power.


Hitler never had more than 37 percent of the popular vote in the honest elections that occurred before he became Chancellor. And the opposition among the 63 percent against him was generally quite strong. Hitler therefore would have never seen the light of day had the German Republic been truly democratic. Unfortunately, its otherwise sound constitution contained a few fatal flaws. The German leaders also had a weak devotion to democracy, and some were actively plotting to overthrow it. Hitler furthermore enjoyed an almost unbroken string of luck in coming to power. He benefited greatly from the Great Depression, the half-senility of the president, the incompetence of his opposition, and the appearance of an unnecessary backroom deal just as the Nazis were starting to lose popular appeal and votes.


Critics of democracy often claim that Hitler was democratically elected to power. This is untrue. Hitler never had the popular votes to become Chancellor of Germany, and the only reason he got the job was because the German leaders entered into a series of back-room deals. Some claim that Hitler's rise was nonetheless legal under the German system. The problem is that what was "legal" under the German system would not be considered legal under a truer and better-working democracy. In a democracy along the lines of the United States or Great Britain, Hitler could have never risen to power.

The background to Hitler's rise to power

The German Weimar Republic was doomed from the start. (1) Germany had no democratic tradition, and in fact many parties were deeply opposed to the creation of a democracy. These included old monarchists, the Army, the industrialists, the Nationalists and several other conservative parties. Many, like the Nazis to come, were not so much members of the Republic as they were conspirators to overthrow it. When it came time to create the Republic, the conservative parties took no part in the process. They left that responsibility to the Social Democrats, who were not enthusiastic about building a Republic either, but did so anyway, by themselves.

Yet this would allow the conservative parties to blame the Republic and the Social Democrats for all of Germany's future problems. The new government, led by the liberal parties, inevitably had to sign Germany's surrender documents and terms of peace. Unfortunately, the punitive Treaty of Versailles humiliated Germany before the entire world. This event was really beyond Germany's control, but conservative parties would blame liberals and the Republic forever afterwards, calling it a "stab in the back" by the "November criminals." To be loyal to the Fatherland, conservatives often said, one had to be disloyal to the Republic. Hitler himself would rely heavily on this very rhetoric.

The constitution of the new Republic was also doomed from the start. On paper, it seemed like one of the most liberal and democratic constitutions of Europe at the time. It called for the government to be led by a president with limited but sometimes strong constitutional powers. The Reichstag, or parliament, would be filled with a varying number of elected representatives (usually about 600). These representatives would in turn elect the Reichstag's chancellor and cabinet, which would remain in power only as long as they commanded majority approval in the Reichstag. In the event that no single party or candidate commanded a majority, then coalitions would have to be forged.

Unfortunately, the constitution also contained several fatal flaws. One of the worst was Article 48 of the constitution, which granted dictatorial powers to the president in times of national emergency. Unfortunately, the president would frequently evoke this clause, and it ultimately proved the downfall of the Republic.

Another flaw was an elaborate and complex system of proportional voting and voting by list, intended to give minorities the fairest possible representation. This is a laudable goal, of course, but other democracies use different methods to achieve it. Germany's approach had the practical effect of splintering the parties; by 1930, there were no less than 28 parties competing for election. This made it virtually impossible to establish a majority in the Reichstag, and led to instability and frequent changes in the government. What made this worse is that Germany's middle class was too small, and there were too few middle-class parties to stabilize German politics. With Communists on one side, and Nazis on the other, there was little room for compromise and coalition-building.

Finally, the constitution created a government that was not sufficiently centralized. Many of the German states retained a high degree of autonomy under the new government. This was not the original intention of Professor Hugo Preuss, the constitution's chief architect. He had called for states like Prussia to be turned into provinces under a unified German state. But his suggestion was rejected, creating a situation where strong German states would endlessly squabble for power.

In addition to these constitutional defects, there were two other problems that weakened democracy in Weimar Germany. One was the advanced age of its president, Paul von Hindenburg, a strong-willed field marshal and war hero. Unfortunately, Hindenburg would be in his middle 80s and partly senile by the time Hitler started achieving real power. Although he personally detested Hitler, he made many costly blunders and miscalculations about him, thinking he could easily control him. But by then the aged field marshal had lost much of his competence.

The second problem was that the Army was not subordinated to the government, but was a strong political player in its own right. By the time Hitler started his final rise to power, the Army's most influential political figure would be Lieutenant General Kurt von Schleicher, who was a close personal friend of Hindenburg and other government leaders. He would emerge as a major power broker -- and an undemocratic one -- in the power struggles that erupted in the early 30s. Of course, Hitler had long made sure to cultivate his alliances with the Army.

These were the conditions under which Hitler began his political career.

Hitler's rise to power

Like all mass movements, Nazism only thrived in times of great national distress. However, it is important to note the significant limits of Nazi popularity even then. After World War I, Germany lay defeated, humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, its industrial regions occupied by foreign powers, saddled with enormous war reparations, and with no military to defend itself. Yet throughout the 1920s, Hitler could not exploit these setbacks to achieve political power. As late as May 1928, the Nazis had obtained only 12 seats in the Reichstag.

It took the Great Depression -- which hit Germany harder than any than any other nation -- to turn Nazism into a true mass movement. But even then, the Nazis never gained a majority of the people's vote. Nazism generally appealed to only a third of the German people, and these came from its lower classes, armed forces and war industries. Nearly two-thirds of Germany were opposed to Hitler, and adamantly so. There was never any hope that Hitler could have won their support. It goes without saying that if the German Republic had been truly democratic, it would have survived even the test of a depression.

Still, the Great Depression gave Hitler a chance to blame the status quo, and he expertly exploited the people's misery to increase his political power. In elections held on September 14, 1930, the Nazis won 18 percent of the vote, increasing their seats in the Reichstag to 107. Overnight they went from the ninth to second largest political party in Germany.

Between 1931 and 1933, vicious power struggles would break out between rival political parties. The power brokers in these struggles were Hindenburg and Schleicher. The problem during this period was that no party even came close to achieving the majority required to elect its leader Chancellor. Coalitions were either impossible to build, or were so transient that they dissolved as quickly as they formed. Ambitious leaders from every party began maneuvering for power, striking deals, double-crossing each other, and trying to find the most advantageous alliances. Hitler himself would ally the Nazis to the Nationalist Party. "The chess game for power begins," Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary. "The chief thing is that we remain strong and make no compromises." (2)

In 1932, hoping to establish a clear government by majority rule, Hindenburg held two presidential elections. Hitler, among others, ran against him. A vote for Hindenburg was a vote to continue the German Republic, while a vote for Hitler was a vote against it. The Nazi party made the most clever use of propaganda, as well as the most extensive use of violence. Bloody street battles erupted between Communists and Nazis thugs, and many political figures were murdered.

In the first election, held on March 13, 1932, Hitler received 30 percent of the vote, losing badly to Hindenburg's 49.6 percent. But because Hindenburg had just missed an absolute majority, a run-off election was scheduled a month later. On April 10, 1932, Hitler increased his share of the vote to 37 percent, but Hindenburg again won, this time with a decisive 53 percent. A clear majority of the voters had thus declared their preference for a democratic republic.

However, the balance of power in the Reichstag was still unstable, lacking a majority party or coalition to rule the government. All too frequently, Hindenburg had to evoke the dictatorial powers available to him under Article 48 of the constitution to break up the political stalemate. In an attempt to resolve this crisis, he called for more elections. On July 31, 1932, the Nazis won 230 out of 608 seats in the Reichstag, making them its largest party. Still, they did not command the majority needed to elect Hitler Chancellor.

In another election on November 6, 1932, the Nazis lost 34 seats in the Reichstag, reducing their total to 196. And for the first time it looked as if the Nazi threat would fade. This was for several reasons. First, the Nazis' violence and rhetoric had hardened opposition against Hitler, and it was becoming obvious that he would never achieve power democratically. Even worse, the Nazi party was running very low on money, and it could no longer afford to operate its expensive propaganda machine. Furthermore, the party was beginning to splinter and rebel under the stress of so many elections. Hitler discovered that Gregor Strasser, one of the Nazis' highest officials, had been disloyal, attempting to negotiate power for himself behind Hitler's back. The shock was so great that Hitler threatened to shoot himself.

But at the lowest ebb of the Nazis' fortunes, the backroom deal presented itself as the solution to all their problems. Deal-making, intrigues and double-crosses had been going on for years now. Schleicher, who had managed to make himself the last German Chancellor before Hitler, would eventually say: "I stayed in power only 57 days, and on each of those days I was betrayed 57 times." (3) It's not worth tracking the ins and outs of all these schemes, but the one that got Hitler into power is worth noting.

Hitler's unexpected savior was Franz von Papen, one of the former Chancellors, a remarkably incompetent man who owed his political career to a personal friendship with Hindenburg. He had been thrown out of power by the much more capable Schleicher, who personally replaced him. To get even, Papen approached Hitler and offered to become "co-chancellors," if only Hitler would join him in a coalition to overthrow Schleicher. Hitler responded that only he could be the head of government, while Papen's supporters could be given important cabinet positions. The two reached a tentative agreement to pursue such an alliance, even though secretly they were planning to double-cross each other.

Meanwhile Schleicher was failing spectacularly in his attempts to form a coalition government, so Hindenburg forced his resignation. But by now, Hindenburg was exhausted by all the intrigue and crisis, and the prospect of civil war had moved the steely field marshal to tears. As much as he hated to do so, he seemed resigned to offering Hitler a high government position. Many people were urging him to do so: the industrialists who were financing Hitler, the military whose connections Hitler had cultivated, even Hindenburg's son, whom some historians believe the Nazis had blackmailed. The last straw came when an unfounded rumor swept through Berlin that Schleicher was about to attempt a military coup, arrest Hindenburg, and establish a military dictatorship. Alarmed, Hindenburg wasted no time offering Hitler the Chancellorship, thinking it was a last resort to save the Republic.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor. As Hitler historian Alan Bullock put it:

Hitler's deal did not even give him a majority in the Reichstag. His coalition of Nazis and Nationalists had only 247 out of 583 seats in the Reichstag, still not a majority. But Hitler wasted no time using his newfound powers to start eliminating his competition. New elections were scheduled for March 5, 1933. Goebbels was completely confident now of success. "Now it will be easy to carry on the fight, for we can call on all the resources of the State. Radio and press are at our disposal. We shall stage a masterpiece of propaganda. And this time, naturally, there is no lack of money." (5)

Hitler's opponents had brought him to power thinking that they could control "the Austrian corporal." Papen even boasted: "Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he'll squeak." But they fatally underestimated him. On February 27, 1993, a fire engulfed the Reichstag -- Germany's symbol, if not actual center, of democracy. Hitler blamed it on the Communists, and used it as an excuse to begin a brutal crackdown. This he accomplished by drawing up an emergency decree "for the Protection of the people and the State." It read: And Hitler got the distraught and half-senile Hindenburg to sign it. Almost immediately, the Nazis initiated a wave of terror, murder and torture that effectively cowed thousands of their political rivals, almost all of them Communists, Social Democrats and other liberals. Herman Goering, now in charge of the police, replaced senior police officers with his own S.A. or S.S. leaders. He ordered them: The combination of political terror and state-run propaganda gave the Nazis their best election result yet. On March 5, 1933, the Nazis won 44 percent of the vote -- but still not a majority. The Nazis also secured 288 seats in the makeshift parliament -- again, still not a majority. Along with the 52 seats of the Nationalists, however, their coalition had obtained a majority of 16 seats. Yet Hitler now had a new goal: to obtain the two-thirds majority required to alter the constitution and give him dictatorial powers. He needed only 31 non-Nazi votes to get it.

Hitler planned on doing this by passing a bill entitled the "Enabling Act." It would transfer power from the Reichstag to the Reich cabinet for four years, including the power of legislation, budget, approval of treaties and initiation of constitutional amendments. The laws enacted by the cabinet would be drafted by the Chancellor and "might deviate from the constitution." In voting for it, the Reichstag would essentially be dissolving itself and making Hitler dictator.

In attempting to secure the votes, the Nazis made heavy use of terror, blackmail and empty promises. The Social Democrats adamantly refused to vote for the Enabling Act, but Hitler was able to win crucial support from the Catholic Center party, by lying to them about future concessions. On March 23, 1933, the Enabling Act came up for a vote. Nazi storm troopers encircled the Reichstag, and legislators had to pass through a ring of tough-looking, black-shirted Nazi thugs to enter the building. While legislators considered the vote, they could hear the storm troopers outside chanting: Only one party went down fighting. Otto Wells, leader of the Social Democrats, told Hitler: Hitler exploded with rage, shouting: When the Reichstag voted on the Enabling Act, it passed 441 to 84. All 84 dissenting votes were Social Democrats. Not one member of the Catholic Center party voted against it. (9)


Can democracy be blamed for Hitler's rise? No. Other democratic nations around the world were also devastated by the Great Depression, but none converted to dictatorships as a result. Germany was the oddball among these nations, and an examination of its republic reveals its democratic and constitutional weaknesses clearly enough.

History reminds us that there is actually a spectrum of democracies, with strong democracies on one end, and weak democracies on the other. To the extent that democracies fail, it is because the will of the people is not being carried out. The U.S. offers this lesson itself. Blacks were forbidden to vote until 1870; women until 1920; poll-tax debtors until 1964; illiterates until 1965, young people until 1971. And how the U.S. treats its minorities today, as compared to 200 years ago, is like night and day. One remarkable fact remains: where there is a failure of democracy, there is usually a lack of democracy.

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1. The following history is taken from perhaps the two most famous works on Hitler and Nazi Germany: William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960), chapters 3, 5-7, and Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, abridged edition, (New York: HarperCollins, 1962), chapters 3-5. A lesser source for this essay, but one which faithfully follows the above accounts, is The History Place: The Rise of Adolf Hitler, From Unknown to Dictator of Germany. It can be found online at

2. Shirer, p. 155.

3. Ibid., p. 175.

4. Bullock, p. 137.

5. Shirer, p. 189.

6. Ibid., p. 194.

7. Bullock, p. 144.

8. Shirer, p. 199.

9. Incidentally, this vote would prove to be yet another black mark on the Catholic Church's long history of anti-Semitism. Historian Guenter Lewy describes a meeting between Hitler and the German Catholic authorities shortly afterwards: Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (London and New York) 1964, p. 50ff.