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Could Adolf Hitler's seizure of power have been prevented?

Julia Hitz | Stuart Braun
January 30, 2023

Adolf Hitler's rise to Reich chancellor on January 30, 1933 changed world history. A new Berlin exhibition imagines how things might have turned out differently.

Hitler is mobbed by supporters while standing in a car during a rally
Hitler was greeted by fans at a rally in Nuremberg in the months after he was crowned chancellorImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

In the early 1930s it looked as if Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party would be unlikely to ever take power.

By the autumn of 1932, the Nazis were losing support as the Depression-hit economy began to improve. In the November 1932 federal election — the last free and fair vote held before the Nazis seized power — Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party won the most votes but failed to obtain a majority, which meant Hitler had to form a coalition amid ongoing political deadlock.

So few would have then predicted that Hitler would rise to the chancellorship on January 30, 1933, according to Dan Diner, a German-Israeli historian, author and emeritus professor of modern history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

The consequences of Hitler's dictatorship are well known. By the time of his death in 1945, Hitler's devastating wars led to the death of 60 million people worldwide. Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, along with several million Sinti and Roma, people with disabilities and homosexuals.

Hitler, flanked by Nazis, stands from a table holding win glasses and raises his arm in a Nazi salute
Adolf Hitler raised his right hand in the fascist salute during a 1932 meeting with Nazi delegates to the ReichstagImage: AP/picture alliance

Did Hitler have to become chancellor?

In the autumn of 1932 the Nazis were "on the downswing, the economy was on the upswing," said Diner.

"And it is precisely at this point that Hitler is appointed Reich chancellor. That really shouldn't have happened." 

But it did happen, and the rest is history. As Diner noted, January 30, 1933 went on to become one of the most "significant" dates in 20th-century German history.

In the German language, January 30 has been marked by the term "Machtergreifung," or "seizure of power." But power was not seized by Hitler; it was instead handed to him when Reich President Paul von Hindenburg appointed the Nazi leader Reich chancellor.

The aging leader had resisted Hitler for a long time, refusing him the chancellorship despite good results at the ballot box in 1932.

Hitler's appointment to chancellorship was the result of backstage politics and intrigues. A large number of people played sinister roles. Among them was German nationalist-conservative politician Franz von Papen, who had to resign as Reich chancellor in November 1932 and saw a chance to regain power. 

Papen persuaded Hindenburg into appointing Hitler as chancellor so that he could become vice chancellor. The nationalist-conservative elites believed Hitler could be controlled and used as a "tool" — but that plan backfired.

Adolf Hitler walks through a saluting crowd, a car in the foreground
Hitler struggled to consolidate power in 1932Image: United Archives/IMAGO

Hitler was not the inevitable result of a German "Sonderweg," or "special path," in its chaotic leap from aristocracy to democracy, British historian Ian Kershaw has argued.

In the midst of the Great Depression, nationalist-conservative politicians became the unintended architects of Hitler's rise, as they undermined both democracy and the threat of socialism to preserve their own economic interests. 

But while German reactionaries were happy to facilitate authoritarian rule they badly underestimated Hitler's intentions, and his ability to weaponize the national humiliation of the World War I defeat in World War II, said Kershaw.  

Pivotal moments in German history could have been different 

"Roads not Taken. Or: It could have turned out differently," an exhibition in Berlin's German Historical Museum, reassesses January 30, 1933, among other dates that changed the course of German — and often world — history.

The exhibition, based on an idea by Dan Diner, is a backward journey that contemplates how a slight shift in events leading to 14 decisive historical moments from 1989 to 1848 might have transformed the past — and the future. 

"It's not about relating a different version of history or even a so-called counterfactual history," said Diner. "Instead, by means of a perspective on an alternative course of history, we are able to take a sharper look at what really happened."

By considering different historical possibilities using archival images in the "reality room" and artistically staged scenarios in the "possibility room," the exhibition allows visitors to "better understand the real occurrence that took place," he said.

The Peaceful Revolution leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, for example, is framed as a "stroke of luck," since only months earlier the East German regime had approved of China's brutal crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square.

The exhibition also contemplates how the failed assassination on Hitler in 1944 might have succeeded. Yet untold damage had already been done since that fateful January 30, 1933 day when the dictator assumed power. 

Hindenburg and Hitler in a black and white photo
President Paul von Hindenburg (right) handed over the rule of Germany to the Nazi leader on January 30, 1933Image: Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images

Collapse of democracy in Germany

The exhibition shows how a bid to maintain power also paved the way for Hitler and the unleashing of what Dan Diner calls "a nuclear explosive force."

Amid the chaos of the late Weimar Republic, Reich President Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree and sometimes dissolved parliament. He could appoint and dismiss chancellors as he saw fit — as he did with Hitler.

If Hindenburg had not taken this course, Hitler might not have been able to make his own presidential decree after the Reichstag Fire in 1933, through which he suspended the democratic rights enshrined in the Weimar Constitution and assumed total power.

"The big problem was that the institutions that secured democracies collapsed," said Diner. 

What lessons must we learn from this today? Diner's answer is simple but meaningful: "You learn from it to respect institutions."

And to be aware. After Nazi paramilitaries led a torchlight procession through Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate on the evening of January 30, 1933, most people did not take note of the catastrophe that was beginning.

Even in the press, very few saw the danger signs. But any warnings were not heeded, meaning other roads were not taken. And yet it all could have been so different.

"Roads not Taken" runs through November 24, 2024, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

This article was was originally written in German. 

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.