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From the NS archive: Brüning and Hitler

19 December 1931: The future Führer is manoeuvred to the edge of German politics.

By New Statesman

In Germany, the Great Depression put intolerable pressure on the existing political order, and Hitler with his National Socialists grabbed the opportunity. The September 1930 elections led to a precarious minority cabinet under the centrist Heinrich Brüning, but the Nazis won 107 seats to become the second-largest party in parliament. From this base, Hitler set about destabilising the government and angling for authoritarianism under his own rule. Other parties were forced to spend much of their energy in countering his moves rather than concentrating on the daily business of politics. In this piece, the New Statesman’s correspondent in Germany saw the gains of the Hitlerites as “far from warranting any expectation of a conquest of power” and their thuggery as repellent to most Germans; they were a potently malign force but still just part of the political mix. As the author saw it, Hitler was not a potential leader of the country.

The political history of Germany in the last few weeks could almost have been followed by glancing at the headlines in the German press. “A Brüning-Hitler Combination”, which was the news in the last weeks of October, was replaced a fortnight later by a confident declaration of “Brüning without Hitler”; and this in its turn was superseded in the middle of November by a “Hitler without Brüning” announcement.

The sensational success achieved by the Nazis at the Hesse elections seemed to have convinced Hitler that his hour had struck. He began to behave almost as though he was the coming Dictator of Germany. He announced that power would fall into his hands in a few weeks’ time; and he went so far as to outline his foreign as well as his domestic policy, giving interviews to accredited foreign journalists and sending emissaries to test feelings in the various European capitals.

Hitler’s arrival as the destined Saviour of Society synchronised indeed with a seeming recognition by Germans that the reputation for political sagacity which Dr Brüning has so long enjoyed had scarcely been earned. The abandonment of the Austro-German Customs agreement, the unfortunate handling of the banking crisis, the inability to compensate the workers for cuts in wages by a corresponding reduction of prices, and the fact that, despite all Dr Brüning’s journeys and labour, his country was still saddled with the Young Plan – to all this record of fiasco the failure or the Economic Advisory Council seemed to contribute the final story. Dr Brüning’s political stock had indeed sunk very low; and Hitler’s, in comparison, had begun to appreciate. “Hitler without Brüning” seemed almost a possibility.

Unfortunately for Hitler his electoral success at Hesse was followed by the discovery of the Nazi conspiracy for bringing about a putsch in that State. And this disclosure, which gave the lie to his repeated declarations in favour of “legal methods”, convinced the public that the triumph of the National Socialist Party would involve Germany in an unmitigated reign of terrorism, and at once created a situation in which the “Hitler without Brüning” programme was doomed. In fact, the revelation of the projected putsch had done as much to alienate moderate opinion from the Hitlerite movement as the murder or the Communist Deputy at Hamburg last summer.

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The economic struggle, in Germany as in some other countries, seems to have entered a new stage, that in which the industrialists are assuming the offensive, while the workers are definitely on the defensive, fighting a sort of rearguard battle. The economic depression and Germany’s 5,000,000 unemployed form a favourable background for such an offensive; for the workers are no longer in a position to assert themselves. Their only weapon, the strike, has been wrested from them; for the unions’ funds are almost exhausted and it is obviously impossible for strikers to hold out long when one-third or the workers are looking out for jobs. Moreover, these economic factors are reinforced in favour of the industrialists by the backing they can obtain from a great political party, the National Socialists, a backing the more welcome since this party, the full name of which is the German National Socialist Labour Party, claims to be the champion of the workers’ interests. Nothing, however, could demonstrate more flagrantly the unreality of this claim than the Nazi association with the industrialists and the use which the industrialists are prepared to make of it.

Some members of the Nazi party are now trying to rescue the movement from this association. But such a separation is not likely to materialise, and the efforts to bring it about look more like an internal quarrel than a divergence of principle. The Hitlerites have eaten out of the hands of the industrialists for several years; they can hardly now repudiate their old paymasters. Hugenberg [Alfred Hugenberg, businessman, media baron and politician] would certainly not allow them to do so: already he threatens to split on them if they break away.

But why should they break away? As a matter of fact, there is little difference in principle between the Nazis proper and their capitalist associates, whom Dr Brüning calls the representatives of the “Social Reaction”. The fact seems to be that while many of Hitler’s adherents come from the destitute classes, and are therefore the more readily susceptible to the appeal of revolutionary propaganda, the leaders and officials who are responsible for this propaganda are quite deliberately indulging in political mimicry.

There is another difference, of course, in the fact that the two men are rival leaders. Hitler is obviously jealous of Hugenberg’s ascendancy in the ranks of the “National Opposition” and has made it studiously plain that the leadership of his own party is not vacant and that that party is not a mere branch of the “NO”. This jealousy has been skilfully worked upon by Dr Brüning, who has recently held up before Hitler the possibility of sharing in the Government on the condition that the Nazi leader abandons his military parades and sham manoeuvres and cuts himself off from his reactionary allies.

For a time this possibility of a Hitler-Brüning combination was a familiar topic in the press of both parties, and the general public in Germany was on the tip-toe of expectation. But it soon became apparent that the Chancellor’s ballon d’essai had not been intended too seriously. The leaders of the Centre formally declared their opposition to the making of any political experiments, more especially at a time when Germany had to face the outside world; while the Nazis disclaimed the idea of responding to any overtures from a Government which they had every expectation of overthrowing.

What this expectation is worth it is not easy to say. The political tide certainly seems to be flowing strongly in favour of the Nazis. But when one realises the distance they have to cover before they can obtain a majority in the Reichstag, one begins to regard their expectations as ridiculously over-sanguine. Even in the smaller Federal States, where their electoral successes have been sensational, they have not succeeded in obtaining a majority in a single case. The figures of the latest election to these bodies are very instructive; for, while they reveal great changes as between parties, they reflect little alteration in the division between the working class vote (discounting Social Democrat and Communists votes together) and that for the capitalists. The main gains of the Nazis have, in fact, been made at the expense of the bourgeois parties, while the losses of the Social Democrats are due to the increase of the Communist vote. These elections leave the political situation more or less as it was and show “no change.”

While, then, the recent successes won by the Hitlerites are far from warranting any expectation of a conquest of power, they have proved considerable enough to create a still further intensification of the unrest prevalent in Germany. Hitler’s idea seems to be to get on the nerves of his countrymen and to paralyse the will of the governing classes by giving a sort of dress rehearsal of the coming frightfulness.

The attitude of the Social Democrats, the largest party in the Reichstag, is the most puzzling feature of the political situation. They threatened to withdraw their support from Dr Brüning unless he sought the first opportunity of taking up Hitler’s challenge. This is a rather startling volte-face; for hitherto their complaisance to the Chancellor has rendered them not only suspect but politically impotent.

German Communists, of course, explain this complaisance as a more or less conscious betrayal of the workers’ cause. But this explanation is too crude to merit acceptance. The former subservience of the Social Democrats to the Government was a case not of political suicide but of political self-preservation. The only explanation of their long toleration of the Brüning-Hindenburg duumverate must have been their consciousness that any attempt to assert themselves could only lead to a dissolution of the Reichstag and to the transformation of the present veiled dictatorship into an open one. This seems to be the crux of the German political situation, which continues not because the Reichstag tolerates Dr Brüning, but because Dr Brüning tolerates the Reichstag.

That well-known Socialist leader Dr [Paul] Löbe, has just warned his party that it would be folly to demand the convocation of the Reichstag (of which, by the way, the Doctor is President) and to vote against the Emergency Decree, since such action would inevitably result in an abrogation of the Parliamentary system and the establishment of an open Dictatorship. In spite, however, of these electoral efforts, the Social Democrats are now in a much stronger position tactically than they have occupied for some time. They can now, in fact, demand a price for their toleration of the Government. The more unsavoury the reputation of the Nazis and the less fit they have proved themselves for partnership with the Zentrum [centrist party of Brüninng], the more must Dr Brüning rely on the good will and the support of Drs [Rudolf] Breitscheid and Löbe [of the SPD], who now openly declare that they will refuse their support unless the Government takes the sternest measures to defend the Republic.

The latest emergency decree promulgated by the President of the Reich may be accepted as Dr Brüning reply to the Nazi challenge and to the Social Democrats’ demands. Whether the decree’s main economic aim can be secured, that of making Germany a “cheaper country”, a country better able to compete on the world market, it is too early to say. Its political aim, that of putting Hitler and his programme of a self-contained Germany into the shade, has certainly been achieved.

The decree is so drastic and comprehensive in its scope that it directly affects every man and woman in the country. It affects them in two ways. They are going to lose through direct cuts in wages, salaries and rates of interest and through increased taxation. And they are going to gain through reduction of prices, of rents, of transport and of various Government charges. But whether the gains will be greater or lees than the losses no one can tell at this stage. All Germany is now busy trying to calculate the effects of the decree; and in this atmosphere of economic stringency and uncertainty mere political discussions are for the moment in abeyance. Dr Brüning has very adroitly side-tracked Hitler. And the leader of the Nazis is for the moment, as his countrymen might say, a Nebensache, or as we should say, “a back number”.

[See also: The execution of Erskine Childers]

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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