On this day, 19th August 1934, the German public voted 90% in favour of Adolf Hitler becoming Fuhrer (Leader) of Germany, combining the powers of Chancellor and President, President Paul von Hindenburg having died in his bed earlier that month, in a referendum. This was the culmination of Hitler’s rise to supreme power, which had started in January 1933 when he was appointed Chancellor. His powers were consolidated through a number of legislative acts, including the Enabling Act in March 1933, within which the Reichstag voted to give all of its powers to the Chancellor. Yet, despite all of this, Hitler still felt threatened by the German Army and the sections of the Nazi Party which were still revolutionary in nature, and wanted the Nazi changes to Germany to go even further, notably the paramilitary wing of the Party, the stormtroopers (SA), led by Ernst Rohm. The Army also hated the SA. Hitler found a ruthless solution to both problems.
On the 30th June 1934, Rohm was arrested by the authorities and shot. Over one hundred others were murdered too in a purge which would come to be called the Night of the Long Knives. This destroyed any potential challengers to Hitler’s position, both within the Nazi Party and outside it. Soon afterwards, the army, relieved at the removal of the SA as a rival, readily swore an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally, which also brought the armed forces under his control. One more thing was left to do to confirm Hitler’s complete power: becoming Fuhrer.
To confirm this merging of power, a referendum on it was called. There was always a façade of legality around the Nazi dictatorship in order to give it legitimacy. To this end, several plebiscites were called during the Third Reich on various issues and policies. These referendums were also carried out to try and give Nazi Germany a democratic foundation and had the aim of convincing sceptical Germans to give in to the supposed mass popularity Hitler was basking in. Of course, this was not true. During the August 1934 plebiscite, the methods of ballot management by the Nazis had by that time become fully operational. This included the use of threat, forgery, propaganda and fraud. All of this completely corrupted the 90% win in favour of Hitler’s assumption of powers as Fuhrer.
Referendums themselves also appealed to the Nazis and their beliefs. Indeed, believing that they shared a strong link with the German people, and knew what the common people wanted, the Nazis believed that they did not need to operate within electoral systems and they preferred the use of referendums: a simple question put directly to the people, bypassing representative democracy, which can clearly express the German people’s will. Such a form of democracy, the Nazis declared, was not bound by rules and it allowed Hitler to take irrational, unconstitutional supreme power through becoming Fuhrer.
This particular referendum in August 1934 was a turning point. No longer would Hitler just be an authoritarian politician. Now, with the referendum won, he had unlimited powers in Germany as its ultimate Leader. He would control all of its domestic and foreign policies and he was to be obeyed unconditionally. His power was so absolute that Hans Frank was able to say to a convention of lawyers in 1936 that “there is in Germany today only one authority and that is the authority of the Fuhrer”. Becoming Fuhrer was also an attempt to turn Nazi propaganda into reality; that he and Germany were one. As his deputy, Rudolf Hess, declared at the Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally, just under a month after the referendum was won, “the party is Hitler, but Hitler is Germany. Germany is also Hitler”.
Such almighty power would corrupt Germany to its core and allow Hitler and his subordinates to take it to terrible destruction and genocide.
Jonathan Brown, Volunteer Researcher