Study Guide

German Statesmen and Politicos in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

German Statesmen and Politicos

Heinrich Bruening

Bruening served a brief term as the Chancellor of the German Reich in the early 1930s, and, in Shirer's words: "It was the tragedy of this well-meaning and democratically-minded patriot that […] he unwittingly dug the grave for German democracy and thus, unintentionally, paved the way for the coming of Adolf Hitler" (2.5.102).

As Shirer explains, Chancellor Bruening found himself in a sticky situation as he tried to keep the Germany economy afloat in the early days of the Great Depression. Because he couldn't get the party representatives in the Reichstag to go along with his plans, he asked President Paul von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call new elections.

The president obliged, and when the ballots were counted, the results were totally unexpected. Overnight, the Nazi Party had jumped from having just 12 seats in the Reichstag to having 107. That made the Nazis the second largest party in Parliament. Although Hitler still had a long way to go before he could claim the absolute power he wanted, his foot was definitely in the door (2.5.105).

Carl Goerdeler

Carl Goerdeler was a former mayor of Leipzig, Germany. Although he was a Nazi sympathizer for some time, Shirer tells us that by 1936, he had broken with Nazis "over their anti-Semitism and their frenzied rearmament" (3.12.86).

According to Shirer, Goerdeler was one of the first German civilians to "see the light" and make a choice to resist the Nazi regime. He was one of the leading lights of the anti-Nazi conspiracy that began to take shape in 1937, and was one of the key players in the doomed July Plot of 1944.

Shirer describes Goerdeler as being a "Conservative and a monarchist at heart, a devout Protestant, able, energetic and intelligent, but also indiscreet and headstrong" (3.12.86). Like most of the German men and women who participated in—or knew something about—the anti-Nazi conspiracy, he was executed by the Nazis in February 1945.

Ulrich von Hassell

Ulrich von Hassell enters Shirer's narrative in 1936 as the German ambassador to Rome, but by 1938 he'd joined the anti-Nazi conspirators who were plotting to overthrow Hitler.

Throughout his account, Shirer is often ambivalent about the members of the German resistance. His characterization of Hassell is no exception. "Far too cultivated to have anything but contempt for the vulgarism of National Socialism, he did not, however, voluntarily give up serving the regime. […] Hassell, like so many others of his class, seems to have needed the shock of being cast out by the Nazis before he became much interested in doing anything to bring them down" (3.12.88).

With that said, Shirer also tells us that once Hassell had decided to bring down the Nazis, "this sensitive, intelligent, uneasy man devoted himself to that task" (3.12.88).

So, all's well that ends well, right?

Not exactly.

In September 1944, he was executed by the Nazis for his role in the July Plot.

President Paul von Hindenburg

Hindenburg was a prominent Field Marshal in the German Army during the First World War, and in 1925 he became President of the new Weimar Republic.

In 1933, it was Hindenburg's presidential power that put Hitler into the Chancellor's seat. Shirer describes the aging president as "fading into senility" by that point (1.1.5), and he also characterizes his actions as a major betrayal of the Republic.

When Hindenburg died in August 1934, his death opened the door for Hitler to abolish the presidency and name himself Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor (2.7.179).

Alfred Hugenberg

Alfred Hugenberg was the leader of the German National People's Party throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. As Hitler continued to swell the ranks of the Nazi Party in the Reichstag, Hugenberg's occasional willingness to cooperate with Hitler gave him crucial bargaining power on more than one occasion.

After Hitler became Chancellor, Hugenberg joined the cabinet as Minister of Economy and Agriculture. As Shirer notes, in the first Hitler government, the most important ministries in the cabinet "went to the conservatives, who were sure they had lassoed the Nazis for their own ends" (2.6.145). As they quickly discovered, though, Hitler had actually "lassoed" them for his. By the autumn of 1933, Hitler had dissolved every political party in Germany other than his own. Hugenberg's was the last to go, but go it did (2.7.70).

Gustav von Kahr

In September 1923, political tensions provoked the President of the Weimar Republic to declare a state of emergency in Germany. In response, the antirepublican state of Bavaria declared one of its own, and quickly formed a new government. Gustav von Kahr became the nominal leader of the dictatorial triumvirate (dictator threesome) that was now in power.

Along with the other two members of the threesome—General Otto von Lossow, and Colonel Hans von Seisser—Kahr became a key figure in Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch. In early November 1923, Hitler tried to kidnap the three men after speeches at the beer hall and "force them to use their power at his bidding" (1.3.68). The plan failed miserably, and on the following morning, Kahr declared that Hitler's National Socialist German Worker's Party was officially dead.

About ten years later, in June 1934, Hitler took his revenge by making sure that Kahr was murdered during the violent weekend that Shirer refers to as the "Blood Purge." As Shirer notes, Kahr "had long since retired from politics," but "Hitler had neither forgotten nor forgiven him." His murder is one of the more gruesome killings that Shirer records. His body "was found in a swamp near Dachau hacked to death, apparently by pickaxes" (2.7.165).

General Otto von Lossow

General Otto von Lossow was another of the three men who formed a dictatorial government in Bavaria in September 1923. His official title was Commander of the Reichswehr in Bavaria, and, as a member of Bavaria's new dictatorial triumvirate, he was one the men Hitler attempted to kidnap on the night of the Beer Hall Putsch.

In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Lossow's snarky attitude makes him a particularly noteworthy figure. At Hitler's trial for treason, he called the would-be Fuehrer an "unemployed upstart" with "overpowering ambition," and an "unscrupulous demagogue" who had stepped far beyond his place (1.3.121).

Burn.

Baron Konstantin von Neurath

Baron Konstantin von Neurath became Minister of Foreign Affairs when Franz von Papen was appointed Chancellor of the German Reich. He was one of a number of men—most of whom belonged to the nobility—that General Kurt von Schleicher had already hand-picked for Papen's cabinet before Papen himself even got the job (2.6.56).

Even after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, Neurath continued in his position until he dared to question Hitler's declaration, in November 1937, that the German Army should get ready to invade Czechoslovakia and Austria in the not-too-distant future. Within just a few months, Hitler dismissed Neurath from his position, and planted the more cooperative Joachim von Ribbentrop in his place.

After Hitler "liquidated" Czechoslovakia in 1939 and replaced it with the Nazi-controlled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, he "brought the 'moderate' Neurath out of cold storage and named him Protector"—a role similar to that of a governor (3.13.124). Neurath was replaced by Reinhard Heydrich in 1941 and although Shirer tells us that the former Foreign Minister seems to have briefly considered participating in the anti-Nazi resistance, he concludes in the end that Neurath was a man of no integrity or convictions.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Neurath was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for his part in the devastation caused by the Third Reich (Epilogue.8).

Franz von Papen

Like Heinrich Bruening and General Kurt von Schleicher, Franz von Papen briefly held the title of Chancellor of the German Reich.

Shirer describes Papen as an unexpected person to be named Chancellor. When he was appointed he was relatively unknown. His only claim to fame had been being kicked out of the U.S. for planning to blow up bridges and railroad lines during WWI even while the U.S. was a neutral party.

Through the political scheming and manipulations of General Schleicher, Papen was named Chancellor after Bruening was ousted in 1932. After Papen himself was ousted and replaced by Schleicher, he did some scheming of his own. Papen reached out to Hitler and provided him with useful information that would help to give the would-be Fuehrer leverage over Schleicher, and he also arranged to have the Nazi Party's considerable debt taken care of.

After Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, Papen's political position was touch-and-go. Unlike General Schleicher, he managed not to get killed in the Blood Purge of June 1934, although "his office was ransacked by an S.S. squad," and his secretary was "shot down at his desk" (2.7.163).

Just a few months later, he was given a new job in Hitler's government. As Shirer puts it: Papen "cheerfully went off to serve Hitler as minister in Vienna and smooth over the mess caused by the murder of Chancellor Dollfuss by the Nazis" (2.7.195). Despite the fact that Hitler soon dismissed him from that position (and briefly considered assassinating him), Papen stuck around long enough to help orchestrate the Nazi annexation of Austria.

Papen drops out of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich after the Anschluss of Austria, and in Shirer's "Brief Epilogue" we learn that although he was acquitted at the Nuremberg Trials, he later received a "stiff" prison sentence from the "German denazification courts" (Epilogue.6-7). In the end though, says Shirer, didn't serve much prison time.

Colonel Hans von Seisser

Seisser was part of the dictatorial triumvirate that seized political control in Bavaria in September 1923. His official title became Head of the State Police, and his forces were soon employed in the suppression of Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch.

Like Kahr and Lossow, Seisser had to suffer the indignity of being kidnapped by Hitler on the night of the attempted putsch, but when Hitler's haphazard coup failed, he and the others quickly washed their hands of the fanatical would-be Fuehrer.