German presidential election, 1932
The 1932 German presidential elections were held on 13 March (first round) and 10 April (second round run-off). They were the second and final direct elections to the office of President of the Reich (Reichspräsident), Germany's head of state under the Weimar Republic. The incumbent President, Paul von Hindenburg, first elected in 1925, was re-elected to a second seven-year term of office. His major opponent in the election was Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party (NSDAP).
Under the Weimar system, the presidency was a powerful office. Hindenburg, who deeply distrusted and personally detested Hitler, had been motivated to run for a second term primarily by a desire to stop Hitler from winning the presidency. Nevertheless, following his re-election, Hindenburg failed to prevent the Nazis from assuming power. Two successive federal elections left the Nazis as the largest party in the Reichstag and anti-democratic parties in control of a majority of its seats. Under this political climate, Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933.
Incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg was 84 years old and in poor health. Never enthusiastic about the presidency (or public office in general), Hindenburg had planned to stand down after his first term. However, the prospect of Adolf Hitler being elected President of Germany persuaded the reluctant incumbent to seek a second term. The German government of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning had developed plans to evade direct elections by a Reichstag resolution to extend Hindenburg's time in office and arranged significant concessions to be made to Hitler's Nazi Party and the German National People's Party (DNVP) under chairman Alfred Hugenberg. However, both party leaders, unified in the Harzburg Front alliance of October 1931, rejected his proposals.
In the 1930 federal election, the Nazi Party had dramatically increased its number of seats in the Reichstag. Despite becoming a German citizen (and thus eligible for public office) only on 25 February 1932, Hitler hoped to use the presidency to overturn the Weimar Constitution and establish a dictatorship. In view of that threat, the Social Democrats and Brüning's Centre Party would support Hindenburg – in contrast to the 1925 presidential election, when the non-partisan had been the candidate of the political right and had been strenuously opposed by much of the moderate left and political centre. However, in 1932, this part of the political spectrum decided to unite with the moderate right in supporting Hindenburg to prevent Hitler's election. The support of the moderate Weimar coalition was also encouraged by the fact that, contrary to fears expressed at the time of his election in 1925, Hindenburg had not used his office to subvert the constitution, as Hitler now aimed to do.
Brüning recognized that only a general support from the right would induce Hindenburg to announce his readiness for candidacy. He therefore arranged the formation of a "Hindenburg committee" chaired by the Berlin mayor Heinrich Sahm, publishing a declaration of support to Hindenburg as the candidate of national unity and German Volksgemeinschaft. The writer Gerhart Hauptmann, painter Max Liebermann, Artur Mahraun, leader of the Young German Order, the industrialist Carl Duisberg, as well as the former ministers Otto Gessler and Gustav Noske were among the signatories of the appeal, which convinced Hindenburg to run. The liberal German People's Party and the German State Party also declared their support. The Social Democratic leaders Ernst Heilmann and Otto Braun (himself a candidate in the 1925 election) despite the initial resistance of the party's left wing, were able to launch a broad electoral campaign and received the support of the Iron Front alliance, including the democratic Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold association, the Free Trade Unions (ADGB, AfA-Bund) and the Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportbund organization.
On the far-right, the Harzburg Front collapsed, when the DNVP nominated the Stahlhelm leader Theodor Duesterberg as its own candidate. Duesterberg immediately faced a massive defamation campaign by the Nazis, who, however, still had to procure German citizenship for Hitler. The problem was settled (in the second attempt) by Dietrich Klagges, Nazi state minister in Brunswick, when he appointed him a government official.
Like in 1925, the Communist Party nominated Ernst Thälmann. Backed by the Communist International, it was hoped that he would gain support from left-wing Social Democrats disgusted by Hindenburg's character. Indeed, leftist splinter parties such as the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany and the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund organization declared their support, as did intellectuals like Carl von Ossietzky.
Under the electoral law, a candidate who received an absolute majority of votes (i.e. more than half) in the first round was elected. If no candidate received a majority, then a second round would be held. In the second round, the candidate receiving a plurality of votes would be elected. A party was permitted to nominate an alternative candidate in the second round, but in 1932 this did not occur (unlike 1925).
In the first round on March 13 no candidate obtained an absolute majority of the votes cast, though Hindenburg with 49.6% failed only by a narrow margin. He scored higher election results in traditional Social Democratic and Centre strongholds such as the Prussian Rhine Province or Saxony. Hitler's results were a great disappointment to him, nevertheless the Nazi Party recorded further gains compared with the 1930 Reichstag election. The expectations of the Communists presenting "the only left candidate" were not fulfilled, nevertheless they continued their fight against the policies of the Social Democrats and nominated Thälmann for the second round on April 10.
Hindenburg, Hitler, and Thälmann competed in the second round, after Dusterberg had resigned. DNVP and Stahlhelm abstained from making any recommendations, while the Agricultural League and the industrialist Fritz Thyssen declared themselves in favour of Hitler. Hindenburg was elected president by an outcome of 53%, while Hitler could significantly increase his results by more than two million votes compared to the first round obviously profiting from Duesterberg's retreat.
|Candidate||Party||First round||Second round|
|Paul von Hindenburg||Independent||18,651,497||49.6||19,359,983||53.0|
|Adolf Hitler||Nazi Party||11,339,446||30.1||13,418,547||36.8|
|Ernst Thälmann||Communist Party||4,938,341||13.2||3,706,759||10.2|
|Source: Nohlen & Stöver|
Hindenburg, who owed his election to the support of the Social Democrats, took office with little enthusiasm. On May 29 he dismissed his intercessor Chancellor Brüning and appointed Franz von Papen, a declared anti-democrat, his successor. Although Hitler lost the presidential election of 1932, he achieved his goals, when he was appointed chancellor on 30 January 1933. On February 27, Hindenburg paved the way to dictatorship and war by issuing the Reichstag Fire Decree which nullified civil liberties. Hitler succeeded Hindenburg as head of state upon his death in 1934, whereafter he abolished the office entirely, and replaced it with the new position of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Leader and Reich Chancellor"), cementing his rule.
The 1932 election was the second of only two direct presidential elections of the Weimar period. When after World War II the modern office of German Federal President was established in 1949, following the restoration of democracy in West Germany, it was decided that the president would be chosen indirectly by means of a Federal Convention consisting of parliamentarians and state delegates. To date, therefore, the 1932 election was the last occasion on which a direct presidential election has occurred in Germany.
- Falter, Jürgen W. (1990), "The Two Hindenburg Elections of 1925 and 1932: A Total Reversal of Voter Coalitions", Central European History, 23: 225–241, doi:10.1017/S0008938900021361.
- Jones, Larry Eugene (1997), "Hindenburg and the Conservative Dilemma in the 1932 Presidential Elections", German Studies Review, 20 (2): 235–259, doi:10.2307/1431947.
- Pietrusza, David 1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR: Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal and Unlikely Destiny (2015)