July 20th in German History: The Prussian Coup

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1988-0113-500, Franz v. Papen.jpg
Chancellor Fritz von Papen.

Three days ago, I discussed Altona Bloody Sunday, a deadly riot in the city of Altona that occurred in 1932. That riot served as the pretext for the Preussenschlag, the overthrow of the government of the Free state of Prussia by Fritz von Papen on July 20th, 1932.

In the Weimar Republic, the Free state of Prussia was the largest and most powerful of the German states. Importantly, it possessed a large police force. Thus Chancellor Fritz von Papen wanted to gain control over its government. Doing so would eliminate one of the last obstacles to achieving complete nationalist conservative rule over the state. The Prussia government was led by social democrats. That party, led by Minsiter-President Otto Braun, however, had recently lost their majority in the Prussian Parliament, the Nazis and the Communists together controlled the majority. This created a climate of political instability, where the ruling party lacked a majority but no opposition party could garner enough support to take control. Papen thus had only one way to take power from Braun, that being the emergency provisions of Article 48 of the Prussian Constitution. Following the deaths of 18 people in riots, he decided that he had sufficient pretext to issue a decree establishing direct federal rule over the state. Under the decree, Papen was made Reichskommisar for Prussia, giving him full legislative and administrative control. The German Constitutional Court declared the declaration partially unconstitutional, giving Braun’s government the right to represent Prussia in the Reichsrat. However, this did little to weaken Papen, who would retain near complete control.

In the end, Fritz von Papen would lose power in Prussia not as a result of resurgent liberals or social democrats, but rather he would be stripped of all influence by a the Nazis when they took over the German government in April of 1933. All of Papen’s political maneuvering would be nullified by the rise of a man far more powerful than he. Papen thought he could contain Hitler, but he failed to realize that he was several steps behind.

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