On August 2nd, Paul von Hindenberg, hero of the First World War, died. Upon his death, the presidency was left vacant. In his absence, Adolf Hitler, until then the Chancellor of Germany, was able to abolish the positions of President and Chancellor and merge their powers into that of Fuhrer of Germany.
After Hitler became Chancellor in January of 1933, he set about dismantling German democracy. He first orchestrated the passage of the Enabling Act, which allowed the government to rule by decree. Then, after the Reichstag fire, he passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended civil liberties and allowed Hitler to repress the Communist Party and Social Democrat Party. He spent the next year building his popularity. He took control of state governments, spent enormous amounts of money on public works and employment projects, and established patriotic organizations, all to unify the country around him. Hindenberg was the only person who could in theory check Hitler’s power, and by early 1934 he was growing concerned by the cult of personality around Hitler and the savagery of his persecution of political opponents. In particular, he feared the SA, the Nazi paramilitary organization, and demanded that Hitler destroy it. After the Night of the Long Knives, in which the SA’s leadership was killed or imprisoned, his apprehension abated and he voiced little opposition to Hitler thereafter. His death on August 2nd, 1934, removed the last person who legally could fire Hitler. On that same day, Hitler made himself the supreme leader of Germany. The powers of this position allowed him to stamp out all remaining legal opposition and finalize Germany’s transformation into a totalitarian dictatorship.
Recently, I discussed the importance of popular faith in democracy. The death of Paul von Hindenburg and Hitler’s subsequent seizure of power only further emphasizes the need for the population to prevent tyranny. That the last barrier between Hitler and Germany was not a pro-democracy but rather a monarchist General shows just how weak German democratic institutions and culture were. It is the responsibility of the people, not just of a few of their leaders, to maintain and protect their freedoms.