In 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the Empire. History took the course that resulted in World War II. Could history have developed differently? This question is posed by the "Roads Not Taken" exhibition.
Theoretically everything could have developed differently. Because in the early 1930s it looked like Hitler and his party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), had their days numbered. This is what the German-Israeli historian and writer Dan Diner says when he talks about how Hitler took power on January 30, 1933. The NSDAP party and its leader, Hitler, had suffered great losses in the fall of 1932. Even his friends were surprised when Hitler was suddenly appointed chancellor.
His climb to the top would have dire consequences. 60 million people lost their lives all over the world, six million Jews were killed, as well as Sinti and Roma, disabled people and homosexuals. January 30, 1933, was one of the days when history took a very big turn.
"Taking power" was giving power
This date has become an "absolute point, the Archimedean point of German history", says Dan Diner in an interview for DW. "On this day, something happened, by which we historians, but also contemporaries and those who lived later, measure time. It is perhaps one of the most remarkable and memorable days in German history of the 20th century."
This begins with the term "seizure", a word deliberately coined by Nazi propaganda. On January 30, power was not taken from Hitler, it was given to Hitler: German President Paul von Hindenburg named him chancellor. The elderly general had defended himself by fighting hard against Hitler, not giving him the chancellorship despite his good result in the August 1932 polls, one of Hitler's biggest defeats.
"Hitler was not just an accident"
The British historian Ian Kershaw enumerates in his work published in 1998 about Hitler, various factors that influenced Hitler's seizure of power: First he mentions the process of weakening democracy in the Weimar Republic, a republic that was unable to protect and its own interests, mainly economic, came into being. In addition, he mentions the absolute determination of the right-wing conservatives "to extinguish democracy and destroy socialism".
After the turmoil of the world economic crisis, support was again given to an authoritarian system, although even Hitler's will for power and destruction was again and again undermined by many parties. "Hitler was not the inevitable result of the 'Sonderwegs,' the German special road," Kershaw says, but "it wasn't just an accident either." (The Sonderweg, the special German road, has been a theory of German historiography, referring to the transition from aristocracy to democracy, which only happened in Germany. (ed. note)
Hitler must be seen with the contemporary context before his eyes: the war, the revolution, the national humiliation of Germany that lost the First War, and the fear of Bolshevism.
Of course, many factors came into play at that time, says historian Dan Diner, who has done many comparative studies on the subject. For him, important elements are the economic crisis and the structure of the Weimar Constitution, with which radicalized parties were able to quickly enter the parliament.
Although he notes a contradiction: The appointment of Hitler as chancellor was a sudden event, points out Dan Diner. "The NSDAP party was disintegrating. Since the fall of 1932, an economic boom began. The NSDAP was falling, the economy was developing. And at this very moment Hitler becomes chancellor. This should not have happened."
Even his contemporaries thought so. The correspondent in Germany of the New York Times wrote at that time that Hitler had "lost his chance" and would now end up as a provincial Bavarian politician.
"Thread of possibilities": Could history have developed differently?
The issue of the possibility of avoiding Hitler's seizure of power does not leave historian Dan Diner alone. In a special exhibition, carried out together with the Alfred Landecker Foundation (whose chairman is Dan Diner), the German history museum, Deutsche Historische Museum, in Berlin tells about the different scenarios that could have changed the course of history: Exhibition "Roads not taken. Or: It could have happened differently" (Conception: Dan Diner, curator: Julia Franke and Lili Reyels) which will remain open until November 24, 2024, is dedicated to this issue not only considering 1933, but also data from other fundamental moments of German history from 1848 to 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall took place.
"We're not dealing here with counterfactual history," clarifies Dan Diner, "but we're relying on the pyramid of reality to see what other possibilities there were underneath, at the base, that aren't talked about anymore in the story telling."
Behind the Scenes: How Hitler Became Chancellor
Important historical events are seen under a microscope. The appointment of Hitler as chancellor in 1933 was also the result of complicated intrigues and elbows inserted in the backstage of power. A large number of people have played a major role here, the most important of whom was Franz von Papen, who had to resign as chancellor in November 1932 because he failed to obtain a majority, and now saw only one opportunity to come back to power. The calculations worked out (only at the beginning), because in the Hitler-Papen-Hugenberg government, he was elected on January 30, 1933 as vice chancellor.
Von Papen (party member, Center Party from 1921 to 1932, then independent, and after 1938 member of the NSDAP) was Hindenburg's loyalist. In January 1933, he held talks with Hitler on the terms of a joint chancellery and government, and even convinced Hindenburg that this was the right course.
While Hugenberg was the chairman of the party, the German National People's Party (DNVP), and was lured with the position of Minister of Economy, Agriculture and Food, if he approved the appointment of Hitler to the position of chancellor. A day after giving his consent, Hugenberg must have regretted it, because he told Reinhold Quaatz, his closest associate: "Yesterday I did the biggest stupidity of my life: I got together with the biggest demagogue great in the history of the world".
The chancellor in office, Kurt von Schleicher, half-heartedly opposed the creation of this alliance. After a conversation with Hindenburg, he resigned, the president wrote to him: "Thank you, Mr. General, for everything you have done for the country. Now let's see how, with God's help, the rabbit will continue to run."
In January 1933, all participants gave their consent, hoping that the NSDAP leader would be "softened" by participating in the government, also because Hitler gave up some demands (in August 1932 he demanded the post of chancellor and four ministerial posts, while now he wanted "only" the post of chancellor, the Ministry of the Interior of the Empire and the Ministry of the Interior of Prussia). A monumental scam. Schleicher was one of the first to fall victim to Hitler. He often spoke ill of the National Socialists, so SS cubs killed him and his wife in his home on June 30, 1934.
Protect yourself from beginnings: The lesson for today
"Hitler left an expression: 'You looked for me and you found me.' Ugh, I got a cold sweat. As if there were magical forces that set in motion a person who turns into an atomic bomb,” says historian Dan Diner about the development of the story. The perspective of the exhibition clearly shows that the hunger for power and personal interests of particular actors paved the way for the coming of Hitler.
Another important point was the financial support that the Nazi party, NSDAP received from German companies. Economically, the party was not doing well in 1932.
What role did the industrialists play at this time and how did they help Hitler in the electoral campaign, described for example in his book, "The legacy of the dead. The dark history of wealthy German dynasties” published in 2022, political science scholar, historian and financial journalist, David de Jong.
Dan Diner also observes history in reflecting current affairs. Precisely in today's crises, he distinguishes parallels with the past, even with the year 1933: "The biggest problem has been that the institutions that ensure democracy were disintegrated," says the historian. This resulted in a major loss of control. In the last period of the Weimar Republic, the regime was maintained only by emergency laws, the parliament was blocked, the president could appoint and dismiss the chancellor only relying on his discretion.
Respect for institutions
What lessons should we learn today? Dan Diner's answer is simple, but meaningful: "The lesson to be learned is respect for institutions." And keeping your eyes open: Although the "Sturmabteilung" (SA), the paramilitary fighting organization of the Nazi party NSDAP, came out on the evening of January 30, 1933, marching with torches in the darkness of Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate, most people did not see the catastrophe that was beginning. Most of the serious press saw no cause for concern in the new government. Only a few recognized the danger. But their warnings were not heard./ DW