Hope, Dread and Hindsight in Hitler’s Seizure of Power

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Certain years resonate instantly in our historical consciousness. They inspire us to mark their anniversaries at regular round-year intervals, as last year’s commemorations of 1918 and 1968 so abundantly demonstrated. 1947 is not one of those years, and yet, in 2016, the Swedish journalist Elisabeth Åsbrink published 1947: Where Now Begins, its title teasing potential readers with her thesis that such a forgotten year actually had a more transformative impact than its more famous predecessors.

This week’s speakers remind us that world-changing moments often escape our attention, not just as they are happening, but even well after the fact. Only upon later reflection can we appreciate, as Åsbrink’s book asks us to, the significance of the fact that the CIA, the Kalashnikov rifle and Christian Dior’s New Look first appeared around the same time. History abounds with moments like these, junctures whose full repercussions may have eluded the understanding of contemporary observers, but whose importance we recognize now

One of those moments occurred on Jan. 30, 1933, and it looms large in the history of 20th century Germany that I study and teach. At around noon on that wintry Monday, Germany’s democratically-elected president, the war hero Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Hindenburg felt secure in his conviction that he and his fellow conservatives — who had controlled the affairs of central Europe for centuries, after all — would manage to control the Nazi upstarts. The next morning’s two-column headline on the front page of The New York Times echoed that sentiment, proclaiming, “Hitler Made Chancellor of Germany But Coalition Cabinet Limits Power; Centrists Hold Balance in Reichstag.”

Most Germans recognized Hitler’s appointment as a momentous event, which they greeted with jubilation or dread, depending on their politics and circumstances. Few Germans, however, perceived his appointment as a moment likely to change the world. Indeed, how could they have? Who could possibly have fathomed the devastation that the new government would ultimately unleash, given that the Nazis lacked a parliamentary majority in January 1933, and held only three of the 11 seats in the cabinet after Hitler’s appointment? The German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann spoke for many of his countrymen when he purportedly muttered on the evening of Jan. 30, 1933, while watching uniformed Nazis march through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, “I cannot possibly wolf down as much as I would like to vomit back up.” At the same time, though, the liberal journalist Sebastian Haffner presumably spoke for many of those same people when he recounted how he and his father had reacted on that same evening: “We were in agreement that it (the Nazi-led government) certainly had a chance to unleash a lot of harm, but hardly had any chance at all of governing for long.” Dread and hope, in other words, coexisted.

An even more surprising example comes from the diary of Luise Solmitz, an ardent German patriot who wholeheartedly embraced the Nazi vision of national renewal and who also happened to have a Jewish husband. This fundamental contradiction between her political beliefs and her spousal relationship, which strikes us today as so blatantly obvious, did not seem so to Solmitz at the time. Instead, she interpreted the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitism as little more than an aberration whose most malignant expressions had temporarily escaped Hitler’s otherwise benevolent attention. She filled her diary during the first months of Hitler’s chancellorship with effusive adoration for the man, writing on March 6, 1933, for instance: “God save Hitler. He is now a part of my nightly prayers.” In practically the very next breath, Solmitz then expressed her confidence that Hitler would soon intervene to curb the nasty excesses of his paramilitary units, the SA, whose threats to German Jews, including Solmitz’s own husband, had escalated dramatically in spring 1933. Only gradually did she come to recognize the Nazi regime’s seizure of power as a moment that had changed her world forever. Solmitz, her husband and her daughter all survived, but their country, their continent and their self-identities had transformed utterly.

Solmitz’s perception of the ramifications of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 strikes us today as exceptionally myopic and surely exceptional, but hers was, in fact, shared by many of her compatriots. The Hamburg banker Cornelius Freiherr von Berenberg-Gossler noted in his diary on Jan. 30, 1933, almost parenthetically, “Adolf Hitler has been named chancellor today,” and then made no further mention of the matter for another four weeks. Only on Feb. 26, 1933, after a succession of daily entries focused exclusively on the weather, meals, family relations, business meetings and society soirées, did Berenberg-Gossler return to the subject of the new political constellation in Germany. In this particular passage, he voiced deep distaste for Nazism, but otherwise expressed no particular alarm: “Great commotion tonight (due to a) National Socialist parade. (The German people are sick and in a feverish excitement. In using the word ‘national’ a terrible abuse is being committed).”

Berenberg-Gossler’s diary reveals to us, just as Solmitz’s does, the — in hindsight, remarkable — underestimation of what the Naziregime both sought and was able to do. Berenberg-Gossler emerged as an increasingly engaged opponent of the Nazi regime, who intervened on a number of occasions to help German-Jewish associates to emigrate in the 1930s. An astonishing passage in his diary shows again, though, the extent to which so many educated Germans had entirely misjudged the historical direction in which their country was headed. In spring 1933, Berenberg-Gossler was weighing whether or not to join the Nazi Party — in his case, as in so many others at the time, for purely opportunistic reasons — but before doing so, he wanted first to confer with a Jewish business associate in Hamburg. Would such a move upset this man and other Jewish associates, Berenberg-Gossler wondered? On the contrary, his friend reassured him. This man thought it a great idea that outspoken critics of anti-Semitism become Nazis because, this man believed, men such as Berenberg-Gossler would then reshape the party in a more tolerant direction from within. 

Such optimism dumbfounds us today, but it should also remind us, and warn us, that world-changing moments often only make themselves apparent slowly and subtly.

Erik Jensen
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Erik Jensen, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at Miami University of Ohio, where his teaching and research interests include modern Europe; 20th-century Germany; gender, sexuality and the body; and sports. He is one of three Miami faculty on the grounds during the 2019 season as part of a Faculty Fellow program made possible by a philanthropic gift aiming to expand dialogue beyond the confines of Chautauqua in the tradition of the Chautauqua movement as envisioned by its founders. Jensen will lead post-10:45 a.m. lecture conversations at 12:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday in Smith Wilkes Hall.

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