West’s Populist Surge and a Lesson from the Past

November 2, 2016

“Populist Surge” is now on top of West’s agenda and likely to stay there. Mr. Trump’s election victory surprised the world. As expected, President Hollande announced that he would not seek re-election. On Sunday, Austria will hold presidential elections. Reuters reported that Austria’s Nazi past encroached on the election campaign. Others say that a Freedom Party victory would make Norbert Hofer the first far-right head of state in Western Europe since the demise of Nazi Germany. On Sunday, Italians are also going to the polls for a constitutional referendum. And soon, Turkey may follow.
Years ago, I purchased in a second-hand bookshop, an original copy of Franz von Papen’s book “Memoirs” published in 1952. It was hardcover and in perfect condition. I was delighted. Going through it years later prompted me to write this post.

Mr. von Papen is well-known to Turkey’s older generations as German Ambassador to Ankara during the Second World War. He is better known to the world as one of President Hindenburg’s close advisers during the Weimar Republic. He served as Chancellor for a period of six months in the turbulent days of 1932. In the German elections held on November 6, 1932 the Nazi Party suffered losses but still emerged as the leading party. Von Papen played an important role in convincing the President that Hitler should be named Chancellor so as to bring the Nazis under control. Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933 and von Papen became Vice-Chancellor. On February 27, 1933, there was an arson attack on the Reichstag building which was used by the Nazi Party as evidence of a communist conspiracy. The day after the fire, President Hindenburg signed, upon Hitler’s request, the Reichstag Fire Decree which suspended most civil liberties. And, on March 5, 1933 new elections were held.

The following are from von Papen’s “Memoirs”:

“… When the results of the vital election on March 5 were counted, the Nazis had increased their vote from 11.7 million (their figure of the previous November) to 17.2 million. Their 195 seats had become 288. The left wing parties obtained nearly as many seats as in the previous election. The Socialists were returned with 119, a loss of 2, the Communists with 81, a loss of 8, while the Zentrum actually gained 3 seats. The increase in the Nazi vote came almost exclusively from the right wing and splinter parties…

“… My own electoral bloc obtained 1.3 million votes and 52 seats, but the Nazis, with 47 per cent of the seats, had almost won an absolute majority…

“… Once the elections were over I saw him (Hitler) more often. His delight at the result seemed boundless, and his disappointment was the failure of our bloc to formulate a common programme with his party. He tried to talk me out of the independent role I had set for myself in the coalition Government. ‘You are an old soldier, Herr von Papen,’ he said to me, ‘and I know the old adage about marching with the strongest battalions. If we can march together, we are sure of a majority and our success is certain.’

“With the basic conservative conceptions recognized in the formal government declaration worked out by Hitler and myself on February 1, it seemed reasonable, in the cabinet meetings that followed the elections, to adopt a tolerant attitude towards Hitler’s plans for economic reform. He insisted that special powers would be needed, and had, in fact, made no secret of this demand since the first moment when the possibility of his joining the Government had been canvassed. Since the previous November at least, the parties must have been aware that some such Enabling Law would be requested. In our discussions, my colleagues and I insisted that if he was to obtain the necessary two- thirds majority, he would have to give the country firm guarantees, such as we had included in the government declaration…

“… In his speech to the Reichstag on March 21, Hitler met these requirements to the letter. Anyone who would read this speech again today will have to admit that the opposition parties were fully justified in supposing that he would keep his promises…

“… ‘After the Chancellor’s declaration, Dr.Kaas (Zentrum), Ritter von Lex (Bavarian People’s Party), Maier (Staatspartei) and Simpfendoerfer (Christian Socialists) undertook that their parties would support the Enabling Law. After a speech by the Reichstag President, Goering, the Enabling Law was passed in the Third Reading by 441 to 94; that is, with the necessary two-thirds majority. The Reichtag adjourned sine die…’ So runs the official report…” (1)

The following is the text of the Enabling Act:
“Law to Remove the Distress of the People and the State (The Enabling Act)
“The Reichstag has passed the following law, which is, with the approval of the Reichsrat, herewith promulgated, after it has been established that it meets the requirements for legislation altering the Constitution.
“Article 1. National laws can be enacted by the Reich Cabinet as well as in accordance with the procedure established in the Constitution. This also applies to the laws referred to in Article 85, Paragraph 2, and in Article 87 of the Constitution.
“Article 2. The national laws enacted by the Reich Cabinet may deviate from the Constitution as long as they do not affect the position of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The powers of the President remain undisturbed.
“Article 3. The national laws enacted by the Reich Cabinet shall be prepared by the Chancellor and published in the Reichsgesetzblatt. They come into effect, unless otherwise specified, the day after their publication. Articles 68-77 of the Constitution do not apply to the laws enacted by the Reich Cabinet.
“Article 4. Treaties of the Reich with foreign states which concern matters of national legislation do not require the consent of the bodies participating in legislation. The Reich Cabinet is empowered to issue the necessary provisions for the implementation of these treaties.
“Article 5. This law becomes effective on the day of its publication. It becomes invalid on April 1, 1937; it also becomes invalid if the present Reich Cabinet is replaced by another.”

This is what von Papen said later about the Enabling Act:
“It was this Law alone that provided the legal basis for Hitler’s development as a dictator. Anyone who has been accused, as I have, of underwriting the Nazi despotism, has a right to make this point. No one could possibly foresee the actual course of events, and those now possessed of such hind-sight should ponder their own share of responsibility. The fact that all the parties, with the exception of Social Democrats, voted for the Enabling Law, had more effect on developments than the increased electoral support for the Nazis. If the Law had not been passed, it would have been much more difficult to abolish constitutional guarantees and much easier to oppose dictatorial methods…
“… ‘Who among us thought possible that the irresistible force of National Socialism would completely subdue the whole German Reich in four short months?’ I declared in a speech at Dresden on July 13, 1933. ‘The political parties have been dissolved, the institutions of a parliamentary democracy have been abolished by a stroke of the pen, and the Chancellor possesses powers accorded not even to the German Kaisers.’…” (2)

Indeed, Franz von Papen and his allies were quickly marginalized and he left the government. The Nazis banned and dissolved all other parties and the Reichstag became a rubberstamp for the regime. Thus, the Weimar Republic which was designed to usher in democracy failed. It needs to be added that these were the years of the Great Depression.

Von Papen was one of the defendants at Nuremberg. He was charged for his role in the Anschluss as German Ambassador to Vienna. The court acquitted him but he was subsequently sentenced to eight years of hard labor by a West German denazification court. He was released on appeal in 1949 and died in 1969.
———————————————————
(1) Franz von Papen (1952), Memoirs, Andre Deutsch Limited, London, pp. 271-274.
(2) Ibid. pp. 275,303.

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