The day of the seizure of power, January 30, 1933, is a frosty winter day in Berlin. In the morning, Reich President Paul von Hindenburg received Adolf Hitler, head of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), and Franz von Papen, former Reich Chancellor. On the same day, the “Spandauer Zeitung” ran the headline: “Hitler Reich Chancellor”. Below that, the newspaper describes the mood: “A dense fog has been hanging over political Germany these days. The path to the future is completely dark.”

90 years after that fatal January morning at the end of the Weimar Republic, it is known where the road led – to dictatorship, war and genocide. Millions of people were persecuted, fought and murdered, Europe destroyed, Germany divided. And although the twelve years of the so-called Third Reich seem to have been examined from all sides, right down to Hitler’s shepherd dog, central questions remain. Could all this have been prevented? And could it be repeated in these times of war and crisis?

“In the 1950s and 1960s, the prevailing thesis was that this republic was doomed from the start because of the mistakes in the constitution, the crises and the consequences of the Versailles Treaty,” says Berlin historian Thomas Sandkühler. “Today, the Weimar Republic is seen in a much brighter light as a democratic re-foundation. However, this means that January 30th, with its crash into dictatorship, is almost of an even higher quality, because democracy would have had a chance of surviving.”

The Weimar Republic, founded in 1918, struggled from the start with the consequences of the First World War, hyperinflation, attempted putsch and political murders. The global economic crisis of 1929 and the mass unemployment that followed caused them to falter for good. The NSDAP, which had only 2.6 percent in 1928, already had 18.3 percent of the votes in the Reichstag elections in September 1930. At the same time, the German Communist Party reached 13.1 percent. Between the extremes, the center can no longer find a government consensus.

The 85-year-old Reich President Hindenburg appoints right-wing conservative chancellors without a parliamentary majority in rapid succession, who govern by emergency decree and only last a few months. Citizens vote again and again. In July 1932, the NSDAP became the strongest party for the first time with 37.4 percent of the votes. In November 1932, another Reichstag election, the NSDAP again in front, but only with 33.2 percent.

Now some believe the peak of the Nazi boom is over and the episode may be sat out. “That would have meant accepting a breach of the constitution, namely delaying the holding of new elections and waiting for support for the NSDAP to dwindle,” says historian Sandkühler. “But the SPD in particular refused to accept such an emergency regime. There is a certain tragedy in that.”

At the end of 1932, the former General Kurt von Schleicher became Reich Chancellor. But his predecessor Franz von Papen wants to return to power and makes a pact with Hitler. Von Schleicher resigned on January 28. Hindenburg accepts Hitler as chancellor, von Papen becomes deputy.

“The fact that Hitler was given the chancellorship is an intrigue of old elites,” said Potsdam historian Martin Sabrow at an event in Berlin a few days ago. The established right – itself unsympathetic to the republic and on the verge of autocracy – is certain it has the despised upstart “leader” under control. It turns out differently.

In retrospect, Hitler’s people took control with breathtaking speed. On the evening of January 30, Nazi torchbearers pass through the Brandenburg Gate. On February 1, Hindenburg dissolves the Reichstag and plans new elections on March 5. Within a few days, freedom of the press was curtailed, key police positions were given to Nazis, orders to shoot were given, and tens of thousands of members of the SA – the paramilitary unit of the NSDAP – were declared auxiliary police officers. Almost officially, they now harass political opponents. Communists and social democrats are beaten up, arrested and shot. During the election campaign, Hitler flew all over the country in a private plane. The propaganda shows cheering crowds.

On February 27, just days before the election, the Reichstag is set on fire under circumstances that have never been fully clarified. The Nazis speak of a communist conspiracy and use the pretext for an even harsher stance. On election day, the NSDAP increased significantly to 43.9 percent. With the German National People’s Party, she has a narrow majority. Ultimately, however, Hitler only needs parliament once more: for the so-called enabling law of March 1933. The KPD can no longer exercise its mandates, the SPD votes against the bill – all other parties vote for the end of democracy.

For many, this upheaval seems to be the lesser evil than the constant insecurity. “There is hardly a socially relevant group outside of the labor movement that advocates democracy in the traditional sense,” says Sabrow. In the end, a mixture of enthusiasm and hope, fear and opportunism, indifference and curiosity paved the way for Hitler.

In January 2023, a Jusos poster hangs on a lamp post for the elections to the House of Representatives in Berlin: “Voting on the right is like that in 1933 – no vote for the AfD”. The warning of extremism, ungovernability and disenchantment with democracy is omnipresent. The right-wing governments in Italy or Sweden seem like gloomy harbingers. But are there really parallels?

“The situation at the end of the Weimar Republic is fundamentally different,” says historian Hans-Ulrich Thamer. The main differences for him: the center is more stable and pro-democratic today, both in the party structure and in society; unlike the Weimar Republic, the Federal Republic is embedded in multinational alliances; and there isn’t this militarization of society or paramilitary units challenging the state’s monopoly on the use of force.

More importantly, the fear of a repeat – “one of the primeval and enduring fears of the Federal Republic” – caused a “deep-seated immunization,” says Thamer. There is social resistance to the right. If democracy is threatened, it probably won’t be in the same way again. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” says the 80-year-old historian. “That’s at least an expectation that you can have some justification for. However, you should never say never.”

Read stern: Hitler built the Autobahn, Mother’s Day is a Nazi invention: There are a number of myths surrounding the inventions of the National Socialists. Much is wrong, others almost unknown. An inventory.