Hitler Could Have Been Stopped

Written by David Frum on Monday February 17, 1997

Henry Ashby Turner and Historical Responsibility

Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, January 1933

By Henry Ashby Turner

Addison-Wesley, 255 pp., $ 25

Yale historian Henry Ashby Turner has made a career out of debunking myths about German history. In his 1986 book German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler he painstakingly refuted the Marxist dogma that large corporations funded Hitler's rise to power. In his undergraduate lectures, he drilled into his students' heads the startling observation that with a little bit of luck - - a slight delay in the arrival of Prussian reinforcements at the 1866 battle of Koniggratz, for example -- Prussia's domination of united Germany could have been prevented, or at least moderated. Now, in Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, Turner is attacking the most contentious determinist doctrine of them all: that something -- the contradictions of capitalism, the dislocations of modernity, an especially virulent German strain of anti- Semitism -- made Hitler's ascendancy inevitable.

Many, perhaps most, historians of Germany assume that by 1933, with gun battles raging in the streets of Berlin, workers starving as the Depression destroyed their jobs, and the old elites discredited, middle-class and conservative Germans acquiesced to Hitler as the one and only alternative to either communism or a total social breakdown. Turner insists that this conventional view is wrong. Hitler took the oath as German chancellor on January 30, 1933.

At almost any time that month, Turner contends, Hitler could have been stopped, if only the incumbent chancellor -- a general who also happened to control the German army -- had possessed a degree-and-a-half more eagerness for power. It's a troubling and depressing story. Yet at the same time, it is one that powerfully affirms the truth of individual moral responsibility in history.

Turner agrees that by the early 1930s, the Weimar Republic was probably doomed. But it was by no means inevitable that Nazism would replace it. The Nazis' core support was relatively paltry: They won only 2.6 percent of the vote in the last preDepression Reichstag elections, in 1928. The Depression -- which hit Germany harder than any other European country -- thrust Hitler into prominence, and made the Nazis the largest party in the Reichstag. In elections in the summer of 1932, they won 37.4 percent of the vote.

But six months later, Nazi strength was visibly declining. The violence the Nazis had unleashed to "win the streets" frightened voters. So did the increasing vehemence of their attacks on President Paul von Hindenburg and the country's traditional elite. The economic situation in Germany that fall improved slightly, too. In the November 1932 elections, the Nazis lost 34 seats.

This defeat shocked the party. It had now fought three elections in a year - - presidential elections in the spring, Reichstag elections in July and November -- and had run out of money and enthusiasm. Turner cites Nazi documents warning that the party had reached the limits of its popular support, and that the next election would probably bring further losses. Party members began to quit. SA units broke off to establish themselves as independent paramilitary forces. One of Hitler's most important lieutenants, Gregor Strasser, rejected his leadership.

So in early January 1933, Germany's democrats had taken heart. The New Year's Day editorial of the Frankfurter Zeitung, then as now the country's leading paper, happily reported that "the mighty Nazi assault on the democratic state has been repulsed."

To understand what might have happened next, we need to look at Germany's constitutional order. When the Depression hit Germany in 1930, the Weimar Constitution more or less dissolved. The Constitution granted the president power in emergencies to rule by decree. Hindenburg after 1930 granted a succession of chancellors the right to use this emergency power as his delegate, and on a routine basis. Instead of ruling like a British prime minister -- dependent on a parliamentary majority -- the Weimar chancellor began ruling like a pre-war German Imperial Chancellor, reporting only to the head of state.

The first chancellor to benefit from these immense powers was Heinrich Bruning, a deferential Catholic politician who lasted from 1930 until 1932. But as the Depression worsened, Bruning's political position deteriorated. The German people turned against him, and so -- crucially -- did the army. It is at this point that the tragic protagonist of Turner's story comes onto the stage.

General Kurt von Schleicher had schemed his way into control of the army's political bureau in the 1920s, but dreamed of even greater things for himself: Germany, he was frequently heard to say, needed a strong man -- and at this he would thump his chest. Schleicher persuaded Hindenburg to dismiss Bruning in the spring of 1932, and replace him with a candidate of Schleicher's choice: Franz von Papen, a charming aristocratic opportunist. Schleicher would become minister of defense in the Papen government -- and (he imagined) its true head. "I may not be the soul of this government," Turner quotes him as saying. "But I am perhaps its will."

To Schleicher's dismay, however, Papen began to assert himself. Schleicher favored an economic policy that would create jobs through deficit spending on public works. Papen disapproved. He preferred a frankly reactionary mode of government, based exclusively on the support of monarchists and conservatives. He plotted a coup: one that would eliminate the last vestiges of the Weimar Constitution, and free the president and the chancellor from all democratic control. Schleicher kept scheming. He feared that a coup by Papen, a politician almost entirely without a base of support, would plunge the country into civil war. So Schleicher incited a cabinet mutiny and, on December 2, 1932, assumed the chancellorship in Papen's place. The strong man had taken the job he coveted.

But he failed to reckon with Papen's bitterness and jealousy. On January 4, 1933, the aristocratic Papen met at the Cologne home of a wealthy banker to forge a fateful alliance with the man Hindenburg sneeringly called "the Bohemian corporal."

The minute-by-minute working out of the Hitler-Papen conspiracy over the month of January is the heart of Turner's story. There's no need to recapitulate it here. What Turner wants to demonstrate is that even as Papen and Hitler plotted, Schleicher had every opportunity to beat them. He had retained the ministry of defense when he assumed the chancellorship, so he controlled the army. While some officers sympathized with the Nazis, they were outnumbered by those loyal to the chain of command. Big business mistrusted the Nazis. The unions feared Hitler and approved of Schleicher's economic plans.

Schleicher, in short, was in a position to do what Papen could not have done: overturn the Weimar Constitution with the support of the important institutions of German society, and set himself up as a dictatorial chancellor. Turner goes so far as to argue that the centrist politicians of Weimar might have been cajoled into going along, and putting a facade of respectability on a "temporary" suspension of constitutional government. "At the time of Schleicher's chancellorship," Turner concludes, "no insuperable obstacles stood in the way of military rule by an ambitious and able general."

But, as Turner notes with disgust, Schleicher allowed Papen's plot to undercut him. In December and January, the resentful Papen poisoned President Hindenburg's mind against Schleicher. The full arsenal of presidential decree power -- made available first to Bruning and then to Papen -- would no longer be at Schleicher's service. Turner believes Schleicher could have seized full dictatorial power anyway. Instead, he quit. Schleicher and Papen now jointly suggested to Hindenburg that he choose Hitler as the next chancellor -- Papen because he (with characteristic
stupidity) believed that he would be the real power in a Hitler government; Schleicher to spite Papen. From that point on, Germany was unrescuable.

Would undemocratic rule by a General Schleicher have been preferable to Hitler's Reich? To the non-utopian Turner, the question is not an idle one. A German military dictatorship would have been authoritarian, but not totalitarian; nationalistic, but not racist; distasteful, but not demonic. . . . It might have filled prisons with political opponents, but it would not have populated an archipelago of concentration camps and staffed them with sadists. It would not have made anti-Semitism a matter of government policy or embarked upon a systematic program of genocide.

It might have started a war with Poland to retake the eastern territories lost at Versailles, but it would not have declared war on the entire industrialized world.

Nor would the dictatorship have lasted long:

Like all military regimes in countries that have experienced popular sovereignty, it would have had difficulty in laying claim to legitimacy, and it would very likely not have long survived its dominant personality. Sooner or later, the generals would have fallen out among themselves and Germany's republicans would have reasserted control over the state.

Americans tend to be impatient with the argument offered by realists like Jeane Kirkpatrick that less lucky countries sometimes have the choice only of more or less evil governments. But Turner calls on us to think again. Just as a Schleicher dictatorship would have been better than Hitler's, Franco's dictatorship was better than communism for Spain, and the shah was to be preferred over Khomeini for Iran. The day may soon come when America will have to learn to think this way about Russia.

Turner's book has another moral implication. If history might have gone differently had the persons in authority made better choices, then we are entitled to put the blame for history's evils not on impersonal forces, but on the men who chose wrongly or wickedly. Schleicher was punished by the Nazis he helped bring to power: He and his wife were gunned down by them in June 1934. But Franz von Papen survived Hitler and the judges at Nuremberg to receive honors from the Vatican and die at ninety in 1969. The Allies may well have been right not to hang him -- but people who explain the Nazi rise to power with deterministic theories risk exonerating him altogether, and in that they are very wrong. Evil is everywhere and always the work of individual and identifiable men. It is the responsibility of historians to keep that truth in mind. Victims of wrongdoing have always threatened their oppressors with the judgment of history. To withhold that judgment is to withhold the only justice that the living can render the dead.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard.