I often encounter a claim that Hitler came to power democratically, exploiting democratic procedures, was "elected" etc.

Such claims are usually made by right-wing Liberals who use this argument to justify political restrictions on their opponents as being a painful but necessary measure.

Sometimes the Nazis are counterpoised to the Bolsheviks, who, the narrator alleges, unlike the Nazis, made an anti-democratic coup which makes them even worse in the view of the narrator.

But if we look at the results of the German elections, we see that the share of Nazi party in the Reichstag before 1933 was not much exceeding 1/3. The last elections before 1933 were even less successful for the Nazi party because their share shrank while the share of German Communists rose.

These numbers did not allow the Nazis to form a cabinet according the constitution, and there was no possibility of an alliance with other parties.

As we know, Hitler was appointed to Kanzler office by the president following a behind-the-scenes deal among the German political elite.

So my question is:
how much is the claim justified that 'Hitler came to power democratically'?

  • 10
    In the last elections in 2009 in India, the biggest party had about 28% voteshare. The second biggest had about 26%. But the difference in actual parliamentary share came out to be more than 15% of total seats. Depending on the exact mechanism, a party may not need a majority of the vote share to win an election (or to form a government).
    – apoorv020
    Jan 13, 2012 at 18:17
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    Democracy is a popularity contest, not a rigourous test of fitness to govern. Many "evil" dictators come to power through legitimate means...
    – James
    Jan 15, 2012 at 19:18
  • 1
    Is this a question or an argument? You assert that "Hitler was appointed to Kanzler office by the president" (and I don't question that assertion). So why ask the question?
    – MCW
    Aug 16, 2013 at 14:37
  • 4
    In countries where only 2 parties isn't an almost religious postulate, governments need to be formed by coalitions. In Germany's case, there were other groups that could align with the Nazis to form a majority, and even the mainstream groups didn't have a huge philosophical objection to the Nazi policies of "getting the country going again". They were thought to be extreme but not evil at the time.
    – Oldcat
    May 2, 2014 at 0:07
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    @Oldcat On the president election there were only Hindenburg and Hitler, those who did not want Hitler wanted for Hindenburg and still he appointed Hitler. Its it democracy if whatever you vote you get the same?
    – Anixx
    May 2, 2014 at 0:34

9 Answers 9


Hitler was tapped by Hindenburg, and others, because it was felt that he was just a front-man for the Nazis, not the real power figure. As such, they believed that he could be "leashed".

On November 21st, Hitler saw Hindenburg again and tried a different approach. He read a prepared statement claiming that parliamentary government had failed and that only the Nazis could be counted on to stop the spread of Communism. He asked Hindenburg to make him the leader of a presidential cabinet. Hindenburg said no, and only repeated his own previous requests.

The Government of Germany had ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, a group of the country's most influential industrialists, bankers, and business leaders sent a petition to Hindenburg asking him to appoint Hitler as chancellor. They believed Hitler would be good for business.

Events of course demonstrated how incorrect this belief was.

It is important to realize that even Papen's center party had given up on democratic processes in the summer of 1932 and invoked Martial Law:

Papen invoked Article 48 and proclaimed martial law in Berlin and also took over the government of the German state of Prussia by naming himself Reich Commissioner. Germany had taken a big step closer to authoritarian rule.

The Nazis had played a central role (along with the Communists) in the collapse of civil order, and Hitler repeatedly used (the threat of) violence by the SA to extort concessions from Papen and Hindenburg.

Hitler became hysterical. In a display of wild rage that stunned Schleicher and Papen, he spewed out threats of violence and murder, saying he would let loose the SA for three days of mayhem all across Germany.

No result flowing from that combination can be regarded as democratic, regardless of any claimed election results.

Quotes from The Rise of Adolph Hitler

  • 13
    I would also add that at the presidential election Hitler lost to Hindenburg, who was supported by all anti-Nazi forces. This clearly indicates that the people did not support the Nazi cause, and it was only the betrayal by Hindenburg of his voters that paved the way to the Nazis.
    – Anixx
    Aug 17, 2013 at 9:13
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    A good example of how others thought they were using Hitler, while in fact it was he that was using them. Dec 20, 2013 at 6:29
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    ""They believed Hitler would be good for business." Events of course demonstrated how incorrect this belief was." Didn't subsequent events demonstrate that Hitler was very good for business?
    – Did
    Oct 25, 2015 at 21:01
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    I would definitely say it was democratic. Consider the fact that Hitler did not really usurp or initiate a coup like he did in 1923. Rather, he used Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution that allowed him to create emergency decrees. Therefore, I would argue that he did it legally a.k.a democratically.
    – oswana21
    Oct 13, 2016 at 15:46
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    @oswana21: Have you read how that vote was taken - with one or two brownshirts beside every deputy in the chamber to ensure that votes were made "correctly"? Jun 25, 2018 at 13:44

Hitler was elected, yes, and exploited democratic procedures yes, but he did not come to power democratically.

Hitler as a person came to power because the violence, fueled mostly by the Nazi party and the communist party was increasing, and Germany looked at risk of falling into a civil war.

We already see the first undemocratic part here: The Nazi party used violence as a political tool.

The election in 1932 resulted in the anti-democratic parties (the Nazis and the communists) getting more than 50% of the seats, meaning that it was impossible to create a democratic majority government. After one minority government failed another election had much the same result, and the conservative president Hindenburg finally at the 30th of January 1933 accepted a government that was a coalition by the Nazi party and the nationalist party.

It was decided to hold a new election in the beginning of March 1933. Six days before that election the reichstag building was set on fire. Nobody knows for sure who did it, but in any case the fire was siezed upon as an opportunity by the Nazis, who blamed the Communists and proposed an emergency decree that basically suspended all rights, like habeas corpus, and would give the new government temporary dictatorial powers.

As soon as the act was passed most leading communists was arrested, in practice removing the communist party as a political force, and the social democrat leadership went into exile, crippling them as well.

That's the second undemocratic part that was necessary for Hitler to rise to power.

You realize of course that at this point Germany had stopped being a democracy. However, the Nazis still only got 43%, making another coalition necessary. At that point Hitler created the so called "Enabling Act" which in practice made Germany a complete dictatorship. When the vote of this act was to be done the Nazis arranged to have loads of SA men (from Hitlers paramilitary organization) in and outside the chamber, as an intimidating gesture to make sure the act passed.

That's the third undemocratic part.

So, no Hitlers rise to power was far from democratic.

  • 3
    The downvote wasn't me, but violence (or threat of) is ultimately the only political tool. Democracy relates to what, rightly or wrongly, people choose as a majority.
    – James
    Jan 15, 2012 at 19:29
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    @James: That's complete nonsense. In democracies the parties do not use violence or threat of violence against each other. Jan 15, 2012 at 20:30
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    McCarthyism, Kent State, People's Park, police opposition to the Occupy movements...
    – James
    Jan 16, 2012 at 9:06
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    @RonMaimon: Any serious historian admits that although it's possible or even likely the Nazi's did it, no evidence for that (or against it) exists. hence it is not at all "well known", but rather "generally assumed". Big difference. Mar 29, 2012 at 12:13
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    @hrishikeshp19: Yes I can blame the Nazi party for using violence. They did not have to do it at all, it was not about survival, it was about taking power against the wishes of the people, just as it was for the communists, who also used violence. Both groups were wrong. No violence is not the result of an argument, shown by the simple fact that most arguments does not end up in violence. The claim is nonsense. And no, democracy is fundamentally about values and principles, not only majority. That's why we don't use the word "majority" we use "democracy", which means something else. Jul 21, 2012 at 4:28

Was Hitler elected by the democratic process? I suppose, but really only in the Tammany Hall (JFK?) sense of the word.

In summation:

  • The German Communists were one of his chief competitors: he successfully framed them for the Reichstag fire and made them (basically) illegal.
  • The same act which allowed him to boot the communists gave him authority to detain members of the Social Democrats (other opponents)
  • Hitler lied to the leader of a third major party, leading to his endorsement of the plan which allowed Hitler to take the helm.
  • The Night of the Long Knives, after the elections, removed many people opposed to the Nazi party.

So, with one opposing group illegal, another crippled, and a third deceived, he was able to gain legislative and executive control of the Weimar republic with a clear 5 to 1 majority in parliament.

Once he had this, it was trivial to either coerce opponents to "voluntarily" step down or, in some cases, forcibly remove them to concentration camps.

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    This happened after they already took power. That is the reichstag fire was used to usurp the total power, but I meant just the getting the Kanzler office (all after that was just a matter of technique).
    – Anixx
    Jan 13, 2012 at 16:24
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    Well, I suppose, then, it depends on what you mean by "took power". This is one of the chief examples of "legally elected through illegal means" I know of. He was named chancellor when it was clear that the government would remain too divided (basically, Paul von Hindenberg needed a unity government and brought his rival on to make that happen. I believe that is fairly common practice and Brittian and it definitely happened in the J. Q. Adams election in the US). Jan 13, 2012 at 16:35
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    Only if we wish to say that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Speaker of the House (President Pro Temp? hard to get an exact US equiv.) are not democratically elected. Jan 13, 2012 at 16:50
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    @anixx the Prime Minister in the UK (and presumably Canada and Australia) are chosen by the party that gets the most seats - you don't vote for them directly and technically they don't even have to be an MP. The tory PM in 1963 wasn't an MP when he was made party leader
    – none
    Jan 14, 2012 at 3:09
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    The Night of the Long Knives was an inner problem of the Nazist parties. (there was more than one of them)
    – Gangnus
    Jan 28, 2012 at 22:55

In a parlimentary system that does not use first-past-the-post voting, it is not at all uncommon for no one party to have an outright majority. So somebody becoming head of the government with barely a third of the vote (as Hitler did) is quite doable. For example, the current head of the Isreali government heads a party that only polled 21% in their last election (and came in second). Whenever Greece manages to finally get a government, it will probably be minority led in some similar fashion as well.

Hitler just used this parlimentary effect. At the end of the Weimar Republic's last free elections, the Nazis and the Communists did so well that there was basically no way of forming a government without one of them. Not a great choice there from the Republic's perspective, as both parties were against the very idea of the Weimar Republic. But the Nazis were deemed the lesser of the two evils. (Its an interesting speculation if the Communists would have tried the same thing if they'd been tapped instead. I'm guessing yes).

Hitler's price for being part of any Coalition was to be named Chancelor. That was deemed a relatively powerless position, so they agreed. But then he managed to scare President Hindenburg into essentially declaring Martial Law, disempowering the Reichstag (parliment), and that was all the opening Hitler needed.

So yes, he did achieve office initially democratically. However, he never had the (free) electoral support of a majority.

  • 1
    No! Hindenburg was not legally obliged to choose Communists or the Nazis. He could appoint anybody by decree, as he did before. For quite long time Germany was ruled by the Center party government regardless of the elections results.
    – Anixx
    May 16, 2012 at 18:16
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    @Anixx - Didn't say he was. What I said was that any government coalition was mathematically required to chose one of them as a partner, and the Chancelorship for Hitler was the Nazi's price. Pretty much this same point exists in Lennart's answer above.
    – T.E.D.
    May 16, 2012 at 18:52
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    @Anixx - Yes, but actually getting any legislation through a functioning Reichstag (which admittedly they didn't always have) required a governing majority, which they physically couldn't obtain without the Nazis or the Communists. To get the Nazis was going to require their nominee in the Chancelorship. He indeed was perfectly free to nominate whomever he cared to, but if he wanted a working legislature, his choice had to be either Hitler, or whoever the Communists would deal with.
    – T.E.D.
    May 16, 2012 at 21:31
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    At the time already for years the president issued laws by his decree using extraordinary powers. Reichstag was already non-functioning as a legislature for years. There was no hope that this could change and no desire to change it either.
    – Anixx
    May 16, 2012 at 21:40
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    I am with Anixx on this one - Hindenburg needn't have caved in to the Nazis. Dec 16, 2012 at 12:34

Yes. No.

The problem is the situation in which the Weimar Republic persisted. Germany lost the War and was in a very bad condition.

  • For the NSDAP (Nazis) and the DNVP (Nationalists and Monarchists) Germany should have won the war; Propaganda fed the citizens with the oncoming victory, especially after the defeat of the Russians and the Brest-Litovsk treaty. They did not get the memo that after the failed offensive on the Western front the situation was hopeless, for the ordinary citizen the capitulation and the Versailles treaty came out of the blue. Stack-in-the-back-Myth: The socialists/jews/intellectuals/>insert scapegoat group here< were responsible for the defeat. Therefore they hated the Weimar Republic with passion.

  • The communists (KPD) on the other hand were outraged that the old system murdered their creator and heroine Rosa Luxemburg. For them it was inevitable that the success of the Russian Revolution should be continued in Germany and there was considerable support within the population (20%). Under the influence of Stalin the communists even adopted the "sozial faschism" thesis that the SPD (left-wing civil party) and the unions are even more reprehensible than the right-wing NSDAP and DNVP. (If you remember the joke of the "People's Front of Judea" against the "Judeans People's Front" from the "Life of Brian"...only that it is not funny). Therefore they hated the Weimar Republic with passion.

  • The current goverment of Germany consisting of the SPD (left-wing civil party), Zentrum (catholic party) and the DDP (progressive). Hated from both far left and far right, blessed with hyperinflation 1923, war reparations, a really half-baked political system (more about that down) and civil unrest it was impressive that it hold its ground and was stable until 1929.

After Black Tuesday and the Great Depression it finally broke down. Unemployment rose to unprecended height. It was shown that the political system of the Weimar Republic was critically flawed. The Reichstag (parliament) was not able to work because both left and right parties had enough votes to stop progress. Hindenburg had the power to dissolve the Reichstag, elect the political leader ("Reichskanzler") and create emergency bills ("Notverordnungen"). And he abused this power to its full extent. If someone wants to insist that Germany in the last three years from 1929 to 1932 was a stable democracy: Ferocious streetfighting between communists, nazis and goverment supporters was a daily occurence. In fact, each of the factions had their own hit squad: The KPD had its "Rotfrontkämpferbund", the goverment its "Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold" and the nazis the "SA".

While the German election at March, 5th 1933 was during the time Adolf Hitler was already in power and the opposition was hit hard by the draconian persecution for the alleged arson of the Reichstag (and therefore the election cannot be called "fair" by any means), the NSDAP got 43,9 % and the DNVP 8% with a voter turnout of nearly 89%. They build a coalition and were therefore able to get the absolute majority with nearly 52%. They persuaded the Zentrumspartei to push the Enabling Act through with the necessary 66% majority and legally installed the dictatorship.

  • The film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) includes a scene at a shooting gallery which features a likeness of Hitler; shooting a swastika-shaped target pops up a sign "Father of fascism". I find it interesting that even in 1929 (or before, since I don't know when that exact footage was shot) the communists would have deemed Hitler sufficiently worthy of notice to merit a shooting-gallery target.
    – supercat
    Feb 21, 2015 at 18:10
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    Why shouldn't the communists be aware of Hitler ? Hitler tried already 1923 [a coup together with Ludendorff] (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_Hall_Putsch) to gain power in Munich which resulted in a high treason process and an infamous reputation. And as already said, the communists had severe street fights with the SA. Feb 27, 2015 at 0:05

The German Constitution never envisioned the position Herr Hitler sought so he could never have gotten to that point democratically. He did use the democratic process to gain a postion within the government sufficiently powerful to vault higher.

The National Socialists received sufficient votes in the 1932 elections to constitute a sizeable bloc in the Reichstag which is where the limits of "democracy" were reached. I will not comment on whether votes were the result of choice, bribes, threats, or fraud, just that voting occurred under the aegis of the government. Beyond this point governance was conducted through the group dynamics of the small group of elected representatives which is the nature of a "republic". Herr Hitler proved to be ruthless enough to ride roughshod over theis cadre, expoloiting human frailties such as fear and greed. He had shrewdly persuaded other power centers such as the Army and the industrialists to avoid interfering so that his rise to power was not thwarted by a changing of the "rules of the game". Once he was able to control the output of the organs of government he changed the rules to accrue power to himself with the veneer that the people's representatives had freely chosen to grant such.

  • But why do insist calling him Herr? Aug 16, 2013 at 14:24

With a caveat, I'd say "yes." The caveat is that there is no doubt that undemocratic violence and voter intimidation twisted the results somewhat (citation: Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin Press, New York, 2004), especially in the elections that brought him to power. His total of the vote would not have been as high without this violence.

As to the point others make above about Hindenburg appointing him chancellor and bowing to pressure, especially from the millions of SA troops, I'd say that that's an undemocratic aspect to a democratic system. In the same way, America today has a news media with massive power to place or destroy candidates, and does so due to political pressure, financial incentives, all sorts of undemocratic reasons. This is undemocratic, but we don't claim unanimously that our political leaders all came to power undemocratically (?).

To the extent that violent voter intimidation exaggerated Hitler's showing at the polls, that was indeed an undemocratically-won portion of the vote. However, I haven't seen any sources that show that he wouldn't have won enough to make a right-wing coalition, if he hadn't had that extra bit of phony, undemocratic help.

  • "especially in the elections that brought him to power." - do you really mean it were elections that brought him to power?
    – Anixx
    Oct 12, 2016 at 23:20
  • Of course. As I mention, I take your point about Hindenburg bowing to political pressure and the threat of violence from millions of stormtroopers in making the decision. But yes, of course it was the fact that the Nazis got a 37.4 and 33.1% result in the 1932 elections, and that Hitler was party leader, that caused that. Any party taking 33% of the vote was smashing every other party. So yes, of course it was his leadership of the party and the party's performance in those elections that brought him to power. If they'd got single digits like in the 1920s, he'd never have been chancellor.
    – andrew
    Oct 13, 2016 at 5:04

I'd like to add a couple of points to the existing answers:

  • Hitler's becoming the chancellor didn't make him a dictator - just like any Democratic constition, that of Weimar republic contained checks and balances to prevent the usurpation of power. Hitler became dictator only after the Reichstag voted the Enabling Act, transferring to him the legislative powers. The two thirds majority for passing this law was achieved by physically eliminating or intimidating anyone who could oppose it, notably the Communists and the Social Democrats.
  • Both on his way to chancellorship, and for dismantling the republican institutions in the immediate aftermath of his appointment, Hitler relied on the physical threat by the paramilitary Brownshorts (Sturmabteilung = S.A.), which was by far stronger than the Army or the police forces:

By the time Hitler assumed power in January 1933, SA membership had increased to approximately 2,000,000—twenty times as large as the number of troops and officers in the Reichswehr (German Army).

So, Hitler's coming to power was legal in the sense that all the paperwork was in order, but it was not democratic. (And even this legality could be questioned, since passing the enabling act required imprisoning some parliament members, who in principle enjoyed the parliamentary immunity)


He got many votes in 1932. But not so many as was awaited and it was taken as a defeat. But it was a president Hindenburg, who made him a prime minister (Kanzler). So, the procedure was up to the law of the presidental republic. But the full power he got by usurpation after the Hindenburg's death.

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    Not quite, most of the power was usurped by Hitler already in 1933, via the Enabling Law. Hindenburg died in 1935, still president in name, but shorn of real power. Dec 16, 2012 at 12:35
  • As I remember from about 500-pages biography of Hindenburg, The last didn't used his power these 2 years in discussion simply because he was not "functioning" already. Of course, it is the meaning of one author, but supported by some sources, surely.
    – Gangnus
    Dec 16, 2012 at 18:46

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