Berlin, Germany January 30, 1933

At noon on this date in 1933 in Berlin, German president and World War I hero Paul von Hinden­burg appointed Adolf Hitler, an Austrian now with German citizen­ship, Reichs­kanzler of the Wei­mar Republic, a par­lia­mentary repre­sen­ta­tive demo­cracy that had replaced the im­perial form of govern­ment in 1919. Hinden­burg reversed his ear­lier opposi­tion to Hitler as chan­cellor, believing that at this mo­ment in time the appoint­ment could possibly end the poli­tical divisiveness and economic crisis that menaced the nation.

The 85-year-old ex-Gene­ral Field Marshal and the 43-year-old former deco­rated lance cor­po­ral in the Kai­ser’s army had first met each other 16 months before, when the out­spoken, uncon­ven­tional, and dyna­mic Hitler emerged as a political force to reckon with as leader of the increa­singly popu­lar National Social­ist Ger­man Workers’ (Nazi) Party. In fact, in Novem­ber 1931 Hitler became a can­di­date to replace the vener­able Hinden­burg as Reich Presi­dent in the 1932 national elec­tions, the year during which the Nazi Party emerged as the largest party in the Reichs­tag. Forced into a runoff, Hinden­burg deci­sively beat Hitler in the second round of voting on April 1, 1932.

When Hitler was sworn in as the demo­cra­tically elected chan­cellor of Germany on Janu­ary 30, 1933, he was not yet Germany’s Fuehrer (“leader”). The con­cept of Fuehrer had been around for decades in Ger­many, arising out of the Ger­man Youth Move­ment of the early twen­tieth century. But Hitler rode the con­cept right to the cen­ter of national power in 1933. With­in months of his elec­tion (com­monly referred to in Germany as Macht­er­greifung, meaning “seizure of power”), Hitler began building on par­lia­mentary statutes he had per­suaded the elderly and ailing Hinden­burg to put in place. He silenced the inde­pen­dent judi­ci­ary and the free press (the Nazis labeled the latter Die Luegen­presse, “The Lying Press”) and banned all poli­ti­cal parties except his own. Wielding the power of expanded state police agencies, he created a dic­ta­tor­ship in all but name. After Hin­den­burg’s death on August 2, 1934, Hitler con­soli­dated the duties of pre­si­dent and chan­cellor, becoming Ger­many’s Fuehrer at the head of the Third Reich. (The Wei­mar Republic nomi­nally existed until 1945 because the Nazis never for­mally repealed the Wei­mar con­sti­tu­tion.) For the next 11 years, Hitler loosed a regime of serial violence, terror, misery, and geno­cide on Germany and half the world unparalleled in the twentieth century.

Sir Ian Kershaw is my go-to historian for al­most all things related to the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. His two-volume bio­graphy (subtitled 1889–1936: Hubris and 1936–1945: Nemesis) metic­u­lously detailed the man and the nation he led to per­dition. For people who suspect that 1,500 pages require too much arm­chair time (it did me), I suggest reading Ker­shaw’s abridged ver­sion, Hitler, A Biography, at 1,000 pages or Peter Langerich’s 2019 version, at 965 pages, Hitler, A Biography. The best short bio­graphy of Hitler, at 190 pages, is by another Brit­ish his­torian, A. N. Wilson. I found his bio­graphy Hitler dead on in explaining the essen­tials of what made Hitler, Hitler. Ame­r­ican his­torian R.H.S. Stolfi’s 2011 bio­graphy, Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny, at just over 500 pages, focuses the spot­light more on the dic­tator’s per­sonality and less on his evil actions. In Volker Ullrich’s two-volume study, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 and Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945, this German histo­rian and jour­nalist like­wise focuses on Hitler’s person­ality traits that made him so attrac­tive to Germans and explains how Hitler used his con­sider­able talent as an organ­izer, orator, actor, and poli­ti­cian as well as his cold-blooded ruth­les­sness to claw his way to power and stay there until his suicide in 1945. You may wish to read an older bio­graphy of Hitler, titled Hitler, by Joachim Fest, who actually lived through the Nazi years and served in the Ger­man Wehr­macht before being captured by the Amer­i­cans. Fest’s probing study offers the per­spec­tive of another German his­torian on a dema­gogue who trau­ma­tized his country and the rest of Europe using state-sponsored intimi­dation, war, and genocide.—Norm Haskett

The Rise of der Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, 1930–1934

Adolf Hitler becomes German Chancellor: Hitler at Reich Chancellery window, January 30, 1933Adolf Hitler greets President Hindenburg as new Reichstag convenes, March 1933

Left: Newly appointed Chancellor Hitler at the window of the Reich Chan­cellery on Berlin’s Wilhelm­strasse receiving ova­tions on the evening of Janu­ary 30, 1933. Presi­dent Hinden­burg (elected the second presi­dent of the Wei­mar Repub­lic in 1925) was no admirer of Hitler, dismis­sively referring to him as “that Bohe­mian corporal” (boeh­mischer Gefreiter) or “house­painter.” Ini­tially he refused to name Hitler chan­cellor; instead, he appointed fellow army officer Maj. Gen. Kurt von Schleicher to the posi­tion. Politi­cal in­trigue and divi­sive­ness (Nazis, German com­mu­nists, and social­ists were at each other’s throats liter­ally and figu­ra­tively), cabi­net crises, and back­room nego­ti­a­tions prompted an exas­perated Hinden­burg to end govern­ment insta­bility by appointing Hitler to head a new cabi­net and naming ex-Chan­cellor Franz von Papen from the Cath­o­lic Center Party as vice-chancellor. The under­standing was that Papen would act as a “check” on Hitler’s more dis­turbing ten­dencies and encourage him to tamp down on the law­less­ness and street vio­lence and ruth­less­ness of the Sturm­abteilung (SA), the “Brownshirts,” the Nazi Party’s paramilitary thugs.

Right: Hindenburg and Hitler on March 21, 1933, known as the “Day of Potsdam.” On that day the newly elected Reichstag was constituted with an opening ceremony in Potsdam’s Baroque Garrison Church. The Potsdam gala was a Nazi propaganda pitch to demonstrate unity between Hitler’s populist movement and the old aristocratic, conservative, and Prussian military elite represented by Hindenburg.

Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler, Berlin, May 1, 1933Hitler, Hindenburg, and Goering, Tannenberg Memorial, East Prussia, August 1933

Left: Hindenburg and Hitler ride in an open-top car at the May Day rally, where Hindenburg had delivered a speech in Berlin’s Lustgarten, May 1, 1933. The day had been declared the “Day of National Labor.” Twenty-four hours later Hitler banned and disbanded German trade unions.

Right: Hitler, Hindenburg, and Hermann Goering at a massive demonstration at the Tannen­berg Memorial near Tannen­berg, East Prussia (today Olsztyn, Poland) in August 1933. The castle-like memorial of eight towers around a central courtyard commemorated the anni­ver­sary of the Second Battle of Tannen­berg (August 23–30, 1914), a victory over the Russians that made Field Marshal Hinden­burg a national hero. Against his wishes Hindenburg was buried on August 7, 1934, five days after his death, in the central yard of the Tannenberg Memorial during a large state funeral.

How Hitler Came to Power