|photo: German Federal Archive|
His first reaction was 'icy horror'. Then he sat down with his father to discuss it. 'We agreed that it had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not much chance of surviving very long.. Even with the Nazis, this government would not have a majority in the Reichstag.'
In fact, only three members of the cabinet were Nazis, and Hitler could be dismissed at any time by the Reich President. So though opponents of Hitler were dismayed, they could see reasons for optimism.
What I mean by that is that there is an emotionally-motivated tendency to simplistically divide people into goodies and baddies, even now. I am the last person to dismiss the reality of feeling when looking at the Nazi period and its crimes. My family was too deeply involved and scarred. At the same time, the desire to apportion blame (and therefore somehow to achieve the moral high ground onesself) can distort one's comprehension of those events - and even historians all too often exhibit this tendency.
Looking back now, it seems to me that the four weeks following the 30th January represented a tiny window of opportunity (maybe more of a cat-flap of opportunity) when Germany could have averted Nazi rule. The normal judicial processes were still technically intact; Hitler did not have a majority in the Reichstag, as Haffner and his father observed. Goering had yet to perfect the apparatus of repression, and leftist leaders were still (just) alive and free.
Nor did Hitler have the majority of Germans on his side. The Nazi share of the vote had actually fallen, from 37% to 33% in the November 1932 election. In fact, the Social Democrats and Communists together had 37% of the vote, and could easily have trumped the Nazis, if they could have worked together. But the Communists had their own aims and parliamentary democracy was not one of them.
To the right-wing, aristocratic and elitist parties, typified by the Reich President, the ageing Paul von Hindenburg, the Communists were a horror, and so they plumped for Hitler, believing they could neutralise him. It has to be said that, looking at the near future, civil war was a very alarming possibility; the Nazis and the Communists were already fighting it out on the streets, and so the right wing decided that to take the Nazi leader into the government, under their control (as they believed), was far the safest option.
|Sebastian Haffner: Wikimedia Commons|
This is not to say there weren't signs of what was to come. In what the Nazis called 'the national uprising' the storm troopers attacked their opponents, in particular the Left and Jews, and this began on the night of the 30th January, after the torchlight procession.
|Berndt Roesel, 1925|
The issue of legality is maybe why there was no effective resistance to Hitler during those weeks between the 30th of January and the Reichstag fire of the 27th of February, after which terror was unleashed. Hitler was in power as part of Parliamentary process; he had been appointed by the President. To take up arms against him, if you weren't an extremist, would have meant civil war. Ordinary, law-abiding people had had enough of the pitched battles on the streets, the attacks on passers-by, the smashed windows and flying bullets. The last thing they wanted was to escalate the disorder.
Also, nothing quite like Nazi rule had happened before - or not for a long time, at least.The monarchical Prussian/German state, whatever criticisms one may make of it, was largely a state of legality, and even the monarchs were subject to the law. Many Germans - including many Jewish Germans - felt that Hitler would be tamed, his excesses muted, by the responsibility of government and the sheer weight of state structures.
And during those all-too short four weeks between Hitler's rise to chancellorship and the Reichstag fire, people had their own lives to get on with, that tangle of private worries, personal exhaustion, busyness, confusion, and often powerlessness. They had no idea of how short the time was, perhaps never even knew what the opportunity was that they were losing.
I think history is the slow movement forwards of trillions of moments in the lives of the human race: babies are born, fed, cleaned up and winded, washing is done and hung out to dry; a million men and women come home from work, having spent a day servicing the machinery of a world that is maybe heading for disaster; documents are signed that will put thousands of people off their traditional lands (or expedite the deaths of six million Jews), and then the cleaners move in and exhaustedly mop up behind the 'important' people. . You remember something you need for tonight's dinner and get in the car, thus adding your mite to the carbon already in the atmosphere. Or, on a more cheerful note, you decide to walk or bike instead, and thus you don't.
The history of the world is the story of real life in all its mundanity and unclarity, when what is happening to you, what you hear on the news has happened to other people, has not yet got its name and been assigned a page in the history books. It is raw and new. I think novelists and biographers have a unique opportunity to portray this, since we write about how individual humans live history.It's certainly what I tried to do, when I was writing Last Train from Kummersdorf.
This is a first instalment; next month I'll be writing about what happened after the Reichstag fire.