History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Franz von Papen – Midwife to the Third Reich

Franz von Papen and Adolf Hitler

86 years before, on January 4th, 1933, former Centre Party politician and German Chancellor Franz von Papen (Chancellor from 1 June 1932 until 17 November 1932) agreed to meet Adolf Hitler, chairman of the NSDAP, for a mutual discussion how to remove then-chancellor General von Schleicher from office and replace his regime – which was based on presidential emergency decrees – with a government which commanded a parliamentary majority.

As things were, this was possible only with a coalition between the NSDAP, which commanded 196 of the 585 Reichstag seats, the Centre Party, which contributed 70 seats and the DNVP (“Deutsch-Nationale Volkspartei” or “German National People’s Party, a fringe nationalist affair pinching in 52 seats). This would form a majority of 318 seats. On January 4, 1933, the two met and discussed well into the night. This meeting has often been called the “Hour of Birth” of what eventually become Nazi Germany.

Five days later, on 9 January 1933, Papen informed Reichspräsident Hindenburg about the meeting. In the night of 10 to 11 January 1933, a second meeting followed, in the villa of champagne salesman Joachim von Ribbentrop, who went on to become Foreign Secretary of the Third Reich. On 18 January 1933, a third meeting followed and on the eve of 22 January a fourth.

Papen tried to bait Hitler by offering him the post of Vice Chancellor which Hitler refused – insisting on being appointed chancellor.  Hindenburg declined, but at the occasion of a long meeting of Papen and Hindenburg on 28 January, Papen charmed away the old President’s doubts by suggesting that a cabinet of old hands with only three Nazi ministers could easily control and contain Hitler. 

It did not work out that way, as we know.

The slim coalition’s majority had to be extended to a two-thirds majority for the passage of the sunsequnt laws establishing Nazi Rule.

“A decree of the Reich President for ‘the Protection of the German People’ of February 4, 1933 limited the freedom of assembly and the press a few days after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany and gave the Reich Interior (Police) Minister Wilhelm Frick, who belonged to the NSDAP, far-reaching powers.
The emergency decree issued by Reich President Paul von Hindenburg and countersigned by Reich Chancellor Hitler, Interior Minister Frick and Minister of Justice Gürtner had already been planned by the Papen Cabinet and served in the beginning of the election campaign (Reichstag election on March 5, 1933) to combat the political opponents of the NSDAP.
Further legal norms ensuring the National Socialist seizure of power were the decree of the Reich President for the protection of people and state (“Reichstag Fire Ordinance“) of 28 February 1933, which abrogated almost all fundamental rights, and the Enabling Act of 24 March 1933, which transferred the legislative authority from the Parliament to the Government .” (see Wiki)

The decisive majority was procured by eliminating the one hundred seats of the Communist Party (KPD) and exiling respectively throwing in jail twenty-seven Socialist MPs of the SPD. The final tally for the Enabling Act came to 444 Aye to 94 Nay.

Papen served as vice chancellor in the Hitler cabinet until the summer of 1934, when he was removed to the post of German Ambassador to Austria until February 1938. From 1939 to 1944 he served as Ambassador to Turkey.

He was eventually arrested by American troops in April 1945 and faced the Nuremburg War Crimes Trial. He was acquitted but subsequently re-indicted by a German Denazification court and sentenced to eight years hard labour. On appeal, he was released in 1949.

He failed to restart his political career and died in 1969, aged 89.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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  1. My father, Milton E. Pilalas, was a tobacco importer who sold to the major American cigarette companies who made the best cigarettes in the world by blending Virginia leaf with “Oriental” (Turkey, Bulgaria and Russia) tobacco. As soon as Germany was defeated he went to Izmir and bought a shipload, plus a purebred German shepherd puppy. In his role as ambassador, Von Papen used to breed them and gift them to important Turkish generals and politicians to further his country’s wartime interests and this puppy was one of them. My dad returned just before Christmas – my first memory is going abroad the ship at Staten Island. We brought the dog home and named him “Pappy.” Sadly, on Christmas day while out for a walk, he ran into the street, was hit by a car and killed.

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