In the 1932 election, nobody received enough votes for anything other than a coalition government. The far left refused to compromise with the moderate left, and Hindenburg and Papen were persuaded to bring Hitler in with an understanding that Hitler’s radicalism (and economic ignorance) would be moderated by conservatives. Papen was, according to Richard Evans, confident that Hitler “would surely be easy enough to control” (308). Hitler’s ascent to power was enabled by conservative elite, but not because they wholeheartedly agreed with his ideology: “The anxiety to destroy democracy rather than the keenness to bring the Nazis to power was what triggered the complex developments that led to Hitler’s Chancellorship” (Kershaw, Hubris, 424-5).
A large number of people had given up on Enlightenment models of democratic liberalism–public discourse based in reason, fairness, and compassion, that benefits from inclusion and diversity, and which presumes universal human rights, and which assumes that policy deliberation means a world in which no one ever completely wins or completely loses. They were hoping that a more authoritarian government would solve their various economic and cultural problems quickly and decisively, and Hitler certainly came across as decisive. Hitler promised “that he would subordinate class conflict and capitalist ‘laws’ to the common good of the nation–just as he would submit foreign powers and their domestic lackeys to resurgent German power” (Mann, Fascists 205).
The German government was in an extended crisis from July 1932 on, with Nazi violence against Jews and political opponents commonplace. It exploded in January of 1933, with what Ian Kershaw referred to as “this first orgy of state violence,” saying “the violence unleashed by Nazi terror bands against their opponents and against Jewish victims was uncontrolled” (Hitler 455). Many people believed that the explicit antisemitism of his beerhall rhetoric was tacky, although not because they were thoroughly opposed to antisemitism. A depressingly large number of Germans (Europeans, really) believed that Jews were icky and weird, but they didn’t want them killed, or their businesses destroyed; they just wanted to ensure that Jews had a marginal role in government, and maintained a kind of second-class citizenship. When Hindenburg and Papen brought Hitler in to a coalition government, many conservatives were unhappy, but they thought it was a necessary compromise and perhaps Hitler would mature with responsibilities. The hope seems to have been that, although Hitler had long been advocating an extreme antisemitism and militarism, perhaps that rhetoric was just feeding red meat to the base, and he didn’t really mean it, or he could be persuaded to become more moderate if given power. And, besides, they said, he was a better alternative than Bolshevism.
Evans quotes the French ambassador to Germany, Andre Francois-Poncet, that conservatives expected (correctly) that Hitler would “agree to their program of ‘the crushing of the left, the purging of the bureaucracy, the assimilation of Prussia and the Reich, the reorganization of the army, the re-establishment of military service.” They believed that they could all those policies out of him and discredit him (315).
To quote Kershaw again:
“The working class was cowed and broken by Depression, its organizations enfeebled and powerless. But the ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximize their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organized labour. Hitler was brought in to do the job for them. That he might do more than this, that he might outlast all predictions and expand his own power immensely and at their own expense, either did not occur to them, or was regarded as an exceedingly unlikely outcome. The underestimation of Hitler and his movement by the power-brokers remains a leitmotiv of the intrigues that placed him in the Chancellor’s office.” (Hubris 425-6)
Mann says “highly committed militants, widespread voter sympathy, and elite ambivalence and weakness […] allowed the Nazi leaders to seize power with a mixture of coercion, electoral contest, and constitution manipulation” (Fascists 206). Then a crazed Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag, and the Nazis could put in place things they’d been planning for years. They framed the arsonist as a Jewish Bolshevist (he was neither), and used his actions to justify ending Germany’s experiment with democracy, and beginning its experiment with fascism.
On March 5, the Nazis were given a majority of the Reichstag in an election, and Hitler was able, on March 23, to propose an “Enabling Act“that would give him tremendous power and greatly reduce the power of the Reichstag. Since the Communist deputies were either detained or in hiding, Hitler could count on his proposal winning. The speech he gave was not necessary for getting the act passed, but it was necessary for legitimating his actions and, more important, legitimating him and delegitimating his oppositions and critics.
As with many political speeches, this one had what scholars of rhetoric call a “composite” audience. There were first, the conservative elites, who wanted assurance that he was not the beerhall demagogue who had roused his base to violence, and second, that base, who wanted more of the red meat he’d been feeding them for years, third, leaders of other countries who wanted to know what sort of person he was going to be (hopefully, a rational one), and, fourth, large numbers of people who may or may not have voted for him, but who wanted more stability, and who might have been somewhat worried about whether he was going to provide it.
He also had an international audience for this speech (it was reported in German and published in an official English translation). They were concerned that he was an irrational, self-aggrandizing, and impractical toxic populist, that he really meant to exterminate Jews, that he intended to default on German war debts. Given the violence unleashed by his being named Chancellor, and his insistence that Nazis be allowed to murder with impunity, the attacks on Jews, and the war-mongering of Mein Kampf, the international audience wanted reassurance that Hitler would calm the fraught and paralyzingly factional political situation of Germany, not go Bolshevik, be a responsible leader, and not actually act on the foaming-at-the-mouth antisemitism of Mein Kampf.
He had an autobiography in which he bragged about manipulating others, and that his major goals were to achieve world domination and a Europe (Germany) free of liberals, people who disagreed with him, and genetically-inferior beings (which included entire peoples, such as Jews, Romas, Sintis, and Poles, as well as categories of people whose behavior showed that they were genetically criminal, such as leftists, homosexuals, union activists). He needed to persuade his base that he hadn’t abandoned any of those values or goals, and he needed to persuade “moderate” conservatives that he hadn’t meant the things he’d said to his base in his autobiography or numerous speeches. He had to appear not as a beerhall demagogue, a Jew-baiter, and a man who had probably had an affair with his niece, but a responsible political figure, while not losing the persona of the Jew-baiting beerhall demagogue his base had come to love. He had to look as though he was open to reason, and as though nothing would move him. He had to espouse his irresponsible protectionist policies and appear not to.
His previous forays into extremism meant that the bar was pretty low for him to look responsible–he really just had to look as though he was less demagogic than he had been. And, in his first speech in the position afforded him by post-Reichstag fire political contingencies, he needed to square the circle of being passionately antisemitic, determined on world domination, and reasonably committed to peace and the status quo, but needing extraordinary measures of power. And he did it. He looked like a reasonable fascist.