HITLER COULD HAVE BEEN STOPPED
Henry Ashby Turner and Historical Responsibility
Feb 17, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 22 • By DAVID FRUM
Henry Ashby Turner
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.