Berlin, Germany September 14, 1930

On this date in 1930 German voters went to the polls to elect a new Reichs­tag, and the results were shocking. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (National­sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter­partei, or NSDAP) was the ninth and smallest of Germany’s poli­tical parties, with but twelve mem­bers in the national parlia­ment. In the elec­tions of 1928 the NSDAP had captured a paltry 2.6 per­cent of the popular vote—810,000 votes out of 31 mil­lion cast. But the party’s out­spoken, uncon­ven­tional, dyna­mic leader, or Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler hoped to quad­ruple that num­ber by cap­turing the imagi­na­tion of a wide cross section of the elec­torate, not just those who made up his ex­treme nation­al­ist base. By the end of the day, Septem­ber 14, 1930, the elec­tion results exceeded Hitler’s wildest dreams: the Nazis, as party mem­bers were known, had won 107 seats in the 577-seat Reichs­tag, which vaulted them into the second largest party in Germany after the Social Demo­crats. Of the 35 million Germans who cast their ballots in September, 17 per­cent, or 6.5 million, had voted for Hitler’s party.

In the two general elections in 1932, Hitler’s party—helped by the mili­tant tac­tics of his thug­gish brown-shirted sup­porters, the SA (short for the German Sturm­ab­teilung)—won 37 per­cent and 34 per­cent of the vote, which made the Nazi Party the largest party in the Reichs­tag. Hitler didn’t have a majority of parlia­men­tary seats, but he had enough that poli­ti­cians and the elec­tor­ate had to take him seriously. In the tem­pest of national politics in late Janu­ary 1933 Presi­dent Paul von Hinden­burg (who belonged to no poli­tical party) named Hitler Chan­cellor of Ger­many and head of yet another coali­tion govern­ment in the Wei­mar Republic, an entity spawned in the after­math of the widely despised 1919 Versail­les peace settle­ment. Within months of being named chancellor Hitler headed a totalitarian government.

With the death of 87-year-old Presi­dent Hinden­burg on August 2, 1934, Hitler lickety-split ordered a pleb­i­scite for August 19, seeking approval to com­bine the offices of presi­dent and chan­cellor. Germany’s voters went to the polls and a whop­ping 90 per­cent voted “Ja.” The next day the cabi­net decreed the “Law on the Alle­giance of Civil Ser­vants and Sol­diers of the Armed Forces.” Known as the Hitler Oath, the law required per­son­nel in the armed forces and civil service to swear obe­dience to the “Bava­rian cor­poral,” as Hinden­burg once referred to Hitler, instead of obe­dience to the German consti­tu­tion or nation. From that day on Hitler ruled his nation by decree.

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, at 1,000 pages. 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 2016 pene­trating study, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, 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. 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 at Reich Chancellery window, January 30, 1933 Hitler greets President Hindenburg as new Reichstag convenes, March 1933

Left: Newly appointed Chancellor Adolf Hitler at the win­dow of the Reich Chan­cel­lery on Berlin’s Wilhelm­strasse (govern­ment dis­trict) receiving ova­tions on the evening of Janu­ary 30, 1933. Presi­dent Paul von Hinden­burg (elected second presi­dent of the Wei­mar Repub­lic in 1925) was no admirer of Hitler and ini­tially refused to name him chan­cellor. Instead, he appointed fellow army officer Maj. Gen. Kurt von Schleicher to the posi­tion. (Schleicher lasted all of two months in the position, from Decem­ber 3, 1932, to Janu­ary 28, 1933.) Politi­cal in­trigue, 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 (in office from June 1 to Novem­ber 17, 1932) as vice-chan­cellor, with the under­standing that Papen would act as a “check” on Hitler’s more dis­turbing ten­den­cies and en­courage him to tamp down on the law­less­ness and ruth­less­ness of the SA, his party’s paramilitary hooligans.

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. (A new venue was made neces­sary by the Reichs­tag fire on Febru­ary 27, 1933.) The Pots­dam gala was a Nazi propa­ganda pitch to demon­strate unity between the Hitler’s populist move­ment and the old aristo­cratic, con­ser­va­tive, and Prus­sian military elite represented by Hindenburg.

President Hindenburg and Chancellor Hitler, May 1, 1933 Hitler, Hindenburg, and Hermann Goering, Tannenberg Memorial, August 1933

Left: Hindenburg and Hitler ride in the backseat of a convertible 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 in the central yard of the Tannen­berg Memo­rial during a large state funeral—this on August 7, 1934, five days after his death.

President Hindenburg’s Funeral at Tannenberg Memorial, August 7, 1934; Chancellor Hitler Addresses Mourners