August 19th in German History: The 1934 German Referendum Makes Adolf Hitler Fuhrer

1934 German referendum - Wikipedia
A Banner Supporting Adolf Hitler’s Campaign

Seventeen days after the death of President Paul von Hindenberg, Germany held a referendum to legitimize Hitler’s assumption of dictatorial power. On August 1st, Hitler had combined the offices of Chancellor and President into the position of Fuhrer. On August 2nd, the day of Hindenberg’s death, he assumed his new powers. Soon after, on August 19th, 1934, the German people voted overwhelmingly in favor of the end of German democracy.

The Enabling Act had left Hindenberg, the president, as the only person who could remove Hitler from power. When Hindenberg died, Hitler ignored his command that he restore the Hohenzollern monarchy and instead took the last steps towards securing complete control. He wanted to give a veneer of popular legitimacy to his takeover, and so decided to hold a referendum in which the entire adult population would vote on whether or not they approved of his actions. The lead up to the vote saw a great deal of intimidation and elector fraud. Storm troopers stood at polling stations and watched as votes were cast, people were discouraged from voting in secret polling stations and many clubs were marched to open areas where they would cast their votes in public. Jewish people, Poles, and other ethnic minorities were in fact not prevented from casting negative votes, as the Nazis intended to use a lack of support in areas with high populations of these groups as evidence of their disloyalty. Overall, 88% of votes recorded were in favor of the creation of the position of Fuhrer. Hamburg, the city with the least support, saw 80% yes votes. The overwhelming support was used by the Nazi regime as justification for their continued totalitarian rule.

While the referendum was certainly not conducted in a free and democratic manner, it is likely that a majority of Germans did support Hitler’s takeover. Simply put, most Germans did not value democracy, and many looked at the economic and political chaos of the past decade and thought that democracy had failed and had to be replaced. When a people do not value democracy in of itself, they take a more cynical view and look at the practical benefits of each system. While democracy was not at fault for the great depression or the street fighting between Nazis and Communists, the German people thought it was and so supported a party that promised stability and prosperity at the cost of civil rights and liberties.

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