It was late in the evening of 30 June 1934 when Kurt von Schleicher was disturbed from a telephone call by the arrival of a group of men at his house. According to one account, the men asked for von Schleicher to confirm his identity, and once he had done so – “Jawohl, ich bin General von Schleicher”– gunshots rang out. The man who had been one of Germany’s most influential army generals, and the last chancellor before Adolf Hitler, was dead – killed during the ruthless purge known as the Night of the Long Knives. Killed because it was feared he was conspiring against the Nazi regime that he himself had helped bring to power.


When the story of the Third Reich is told, several explanations are put forward for how a party that gained only 2.6 per cent of votes in the German elections of 1928 was able to establish a radical dictatorship just five years later: the Wall Street Crash, the legacy of the First World War and Hitler’s charisma, to name a few. But one aspect that often receives less attention is the influence of Germany’s elite on the events of the late 1920s and early 1930s. According to University of Edinburgh historian Stephan Malinowski, contributor to a new BBC Two series, The Rise of the Nazis, a small group of powerful actors played a critical role in the creation of the Third Reich.

Boots on the streets

Of course, there’s no denying the importance of the economic collapse in helping to bring down the Weimar Republic. As Malinowski says, the world economic crisis “struck no other country as much as it did Germany, in terms of the economy falling apart: an unemployment rate around 30 per cent, people losing their livelihoods, and their life dreams falling apart”. And while there were many parties on the right and left of German politics seeking to exploit the economic catastrophe, it was the Nazi party that seemed to offer the boldest new direction. “Their voices; the sound of their boots marching on the streets; the oceans of flags and symbols and standards that they carried when they were marching through German cities and villages – this was all very different from what you would get from the conservatives and the more traditional rightwing parties. All of these parties and their leaders suddenly looked like fossils from a bygone age,” Malinowski explains. “The Nazis were a sharp break from business as usual. And people could see this, they could smell it, everybody was speaking about it.”

By the early 1930s, the Nazi movement was already marked by violence as political disputes were being fought out in the streets. Yet despite this, and the stark differences in style to the existing conservative parties, there was a surprising amount of common ground between the two. “There’s a grey zone between Nazi and non-Nazi, and if you look at the conservative elites, you will find that around 90 per cent of them share close to all the negative aims of the Nazis,” says Malinowski. “What the Nazis shared most with the power elites – be they military, industry, land owners, judges, university professors – is a language of fear, of hatred, of disdain for democracy, for the republic, communists, Jews, trade unions, modern art. It was a broad set of things that they did not want and I think it is important to understand that the basis on which the Nazis and conservatives met was a basis of negativity.”

Franz von Papen with Hitler in March 1933 at a service to commemorate Germany's war dead. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Franz von Papen with Hitler in March 1933 at a service to commemorate Germany's war dead. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Disdain for democracy

The conservative elite’s hatred of democracy may seem surprising on the surface, considering they fared reasonably well under the Weimar Republic that replaced the kaiser after the First World War. As Malinowski notes: “German revolution and democracy had been extremely friendly with the conservative elites in and after 1918. The nobility kept their heads, their titles, their properties, their castles, and industrialists their factories.” So why then did the elite share the Nazis’ disdain for German democracy? Malinowski believes part of the answer may lie in democracy’s weak foundations in Germany. “The conservative elites in Britain and France had much more time to build compromises with democracies and parliaments than in Germany. There is probably no other country in Europe that has a higher stability of power than Britain. An observer used to the highly unstable and fragile German conditions might even feel that it was basically the same people running the country since Hastings. Yet the German elite had often been challenged and smashed, exposed to political extremism, war, destruction and revolution: the First World War and the doom of the German empire in 1918 being the most important catastrophe before the Second World War and the Holocaust.

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“There was a constant feeling of threat among the elites. And they felt that they were under attack from the communists and leftwing forces. Perhaps the most important element of all is that the elite had to accept political change in 1918 at a time of doom and catastrophe and absolute despair in Germany, which is infinitely more difficult than doing it from a position of triumph."

In the German federal elections of 1932, amid ongoing economic crisis, the Nazis soared to 37 per cent of the vote – making them the biggest party in the Reichstag, though short of an overall majority. By this stage the Weimar Republic was already gravely weak, with power being exercised largely by members of the conservative elite, acting as advisors to the octogenarian war hero president, Paul von Hindenburg.

The elites thought they could ride Hitler like a horse. But they soon discovered that they were the horse and that Hitler was the horseman

Rather than seeking to combat Nazism, the elite hoped to co-opt Hitler, with chancellor Franz von Papen offering him the role of vice-chancellor. “A metaphor these people used a lot – because most of them were noble horsemen – is that they wanted to ride the Nazi movement like a horse,” says Malinowski. “They would use the momentum and the political potential of the Nazi party but still keep it at bay. The idea of ‘framing’ – to control Hitler, to keep him in a conservative ‘frame’ – was the key concept in 1933. And it was a moment of deep misery in the history of German conservatism.”

Yet a coalition with the Nazis that members of the conservative elite favoured was ultimately rejected by Hitler. Lacking sufficient political support to govern, von Papen called another election in November 1932, which again saw the Nazis returned as the largest party, albeit with a smaller share of the vote. With no solution in sight, von Papen stepped down to be replaced by Kurt von Schleicher, but he also failed to create a workable administration.

On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as German chancellor by President von Hindenburg, with other options seemingly exhausted. It’s often forgotten now that the new regime was initially a conservative-Nazi coalition, with von Papen (who was vice-chancellor) and other senior figures serving alongside the Nazis and still believing Hitler could be controlled. As Malinowski explains: “Most members of this power elite, in particular von Papen, underestimated Hitler and saw him as you would see a servant. When questioned about the decision [to make Hitler chancellor] by another nobleman, von Papen famously said: ‘But what do you want? We have hired him.’

“Many members of the German elites thought he was going to be the useful idiot who was going to play their games. They thought he could be controlled. And I come back to this metaphor of the horseman riding the horse, except that within three or four months, they discovered that they were the horse and that Hitler was the horseman.”

Germans consider their voting options ahead of the 1928 election, where the Nazis won just 2.6 per cent of the vote. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Germans consider their voting options ahead of the 1928 election, where the Nazis won just 2.6 per cent of the vote. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Fatal misjudgment

Less than two months after Hitler became chancellor, he introduced the Enabling Act that effectively marked the end of democracy and the start of the Nazi dictatorship. Measures rapidly followed that clamped down on political parties, trade unions and, of course, Jews. The elites that had hoped to control Hitler had misjudged him totally. Says Malinowski: “This was a bunch of powerful men overestimating their political intelligence and their capacities, and very much underestimating the technical intelligence of the Nazis and the ruthlessness and brutality with which they were going to dismantle and destroy the state, and use their power against their conservative allies.”

Some of those conservative allies, like von Schleicher, met their end in the Night of the Long Knives of June 1934. This was a time of realisation for the German elite, as Malinowski says: “Now they understood that this monster they had helped create had come to a Frankenstein moment where it could no longer be tamed, and was redirecting its violence against its own creators.”

This was a far cry from how ‘hiring’ Hitler was supposed to have turned out. “The elite had sought to tame political extremism by binding it into the system, softening it, giving it more responsibility. The understanding was that when Hitler and other Nazi leaders were ministers and responsible for steering part of the economy or universities or whatever part of society, they would somehow calm down and react like normal statesmen.

“But this never happened. Hitler never reacted as a statesman in the traditional sense. The Nazis were playing an entirely new game in terms of ideology and of making the unfathomable fathomable. And the killing of 6 million Jews and millions of others in the Second World War can be seen as the darkest part of this.”

Now they realised that this Nazi monster they had helped create could no longer be tamed

In August 1934 von Hindenburg died, to be succeeded by Hitler himself. The last obstacle to total Nazi domination had been removed. But while the elite had been largely sidelined from political power, that didn’t mean they were all suffering under Nazi rule.

Aside, of course, from the many victims of Nazism, the early years of the Third Reich saw the majority of Germans thriving as the country’s economy entered into what looked like a fantastic boom. “Many members of the elites were the great profiteers and beneficiaries of the Third Reich,” says Malinowski. “The many examples of German army officers, armament industrialists or civil servants replacing sacked Jewish or socialist office holders in the state apparatus was just one aspect of this. It is often forgotten that the army, industry, universities and engineering were not necessarily directed and run by ‘Nazis’. They were run by power elites. There was a power compromise between industrialists, landowners, civil servants, academics, judges and the Third Reich, and for a long time it seemed to be going very well.”

So were the elite actually happy with how things turned out? “If you interviewed Germans in May 1945, you would always get the same story, which was: ‘We didn’t know, we didn’t want this, we couldn’t do anything, etc.’ And some people, like Franz von Papen, were tried at Nuremburg and they would say things like: ‘We did not really collaborate, or we just did our duty, or we did not like this but we did collaborate in order to prevent even worse things from happening.’ This is the main lie that conservative elites created after 1945, and it remains influential today.

“During the Third Reich itself, however, I think the views of most Germans were positive. They would say: ‘Well, this is deplorable and we do not like that they are beating up people, or the concentration camp of Dachau, the exaggerations; some of them are drunks and they’re not really cultivated; these are terrible people…’ But there was a general sense of admiration for what they were achieving. In two to three months, the leftwing parties had been broken; the communists and socialists had disappeared; the trade unions and parliament had been crushed. The wildest dreams of the conservatives had been exceeded.

Within months of the Nazis’ rise to power, the wildest dreams of the conservatives had been exceeded

“And then, if you go on a few years, Hitler seemed to be achieving everything that he tried. Poland was overrun in no time, and France – where a previous generation had fought for three months to advance 500 metres – was crushed within six weeks. Summer 1940 was an unexpected moment of absolute triumph where Hitler got support from basically everywhere, including most of the German power elites. Of course, you had anti­Nazis. But if we speak about the majority of the power elites, then the story between 1933 and 1941 is one of stable support, and sometimes of enthusiastic support.”

It was only when the war began to turn against the Third Reich that the real rupture between the German elite and Nazism began – a rupture that culminated in the July 1944 von Stauffenberg plot, which was led by conservative officers who were now prepared to risk their lives to bring down a regime that so many of their fellows had acquiesced with. “Heroes, no doubt, but a tiny minority within their own milieu,” as Malinowski puts it.

Almost 75 years from the fall of the Third Reich, the role of the elite in facilitating Nazism remains a live topic. Recently, descendants of the former German royals have been in negotiations with state authorities to claim back their historic property, and the decision could hinge on the extent to which the Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, may have supported the Nazis in the 1930s. “It seems historians, lawyers and journalists will go back to questions that are still not entirely answered: who was responsible for January 1933 and what was the role of Germany’s elites in this process?” comments Malinowski.

Meanwhile, the far right is on the march again – in Europe and beyond. So what warnings might this history have for us today? Says Malinowski: “The most important lessons of 1933 and the Third Reich are about the dark sides of modernity and the general vulnerability of democracy. It’s a fragile system. Any democracy losing the support of the people will fail and a democracy losing the support of its elites will fail too – especially if these elites are working against the democracy and trying to find an ‘alternative’.

“This was the specific situation of the Weimar Republic, and it is the specific historical responsibility of the German power elites that they never came to any kind of peace treaty with the idea of a republic and democracy before 1945.”

Hitler’s useful idiots: 5 members of the elite who helped create the Nazi monster

The rabid anti-communist: Alfred Hugenberg (1865–1951)

Hugenberg was a major player in the German media during the Weimar years, and became leader of the rightwing German National People’s party in 1928. A staunch opponent of communism, socialism and the Treaty of Versailles, he cooperated with the Nazi party, forming an alliance with them and other rightwing elements in 1931. He initially served under Hitler’s chancellorship and believed the Nazis could be restrained, but was soon dissuaded of that notionas his party was dissolved a few months later.

The Catholic fixer: Franz von Papen (1879–1969)

From a Catholic landowning family, von Papen held senior posts during the First World War. He served in the Reichstag from 1921 as a member of a Catholic political party, and was appointed chancellor in 1932 during the dying days of Weimar. He was later instrumental in persuading Paul von Hindenburg to make Hitler chancellor. Von Papen continued to hold senior positions during the Third Reich, spending most of the Second World War as ambassador to Turkey. He was acquitted at the Nuremberg trials.

The ailing war hero: Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934)

Born into the Prussian aristocracy, von Hindenburg came to prominence during the First World War, where he was one of the key protagonists of the German military campaign. His status as a war hero saw him elected president of Germany in 1925. Following the collapse of the German economy, from 1930 the government was largely operating under his decree. Re-elected president in 1932, von Hindenburg sought to keep the Nazis at bay but felt compelled to appoint Hitler chancellor in 1933. The aged president offered little opposition to the new regime and died in office the following year.

The enemy of the regime: Kurt von Schleicher (1882–1934)

The last chancellor of Weimar Germany, von Schleicher spent most of his career in the army, until he switched to politics when the republic began to totter. As one of the key figures in German politics after 1929, he helped bring von Papen to power and then succeeded him in December 1932. He tried to make an accommodation with Hitler but was rebuffed and, following his replacement by the Nazi leader, came to be viewed as an enemy of the Third Reich. He was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives.

The captain of industry: Fritz Thyssen (1873–1951)

One of Germany’s wealthiest men during the Weimar era, Thyssen took over his father’s steel and iron empire in 1926. He was an early supporter of the Nazis, providing them with funds and, crucially, working to arrange contacts with other leading industrialists, which ultimately helped fuel their rise to power. Thyssen eventually lost faith in the Nazis and fled the country during the Second World War, before being returned and spending time in the concentration camp system.

Stephan Malinowski is a historian at the University of Edinburgh. His book Nobles and Nazis: The History of a Misalliance is due to be published by OUP in 2020. Words: Rob Attar


This article was first published in the October 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


Rob AttarEditor, BBC History Magazine

Rob Attar is editor of BBC History Magazine and also works across the HistoryExtra podcast and website, as well as hosting several BBC History Magazine events.