On Aug. 19, 1934, the German public voted 90 percent in favor of Chancellor Adolf Hitler becoming Führer und Reichskanzler (“leader and chancellor”), a new title created after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg earlier in the month.
In its front-page report of the voting in The New York Times, Frederick T. Birchall wrote: “The endorsement gives Chancellor Hitler, who four years ago was not even a German citizen, dictatorial powers unequaled in any other country, and probably unequaled in history since the days of Genghis Khan. He has more power than Joseph Stalin in Russia, who has a party machine to reckon with; more power than Premier Mussolini of Italy who shares his prerogative with the titular ruler; more than any American President ever dreamed of.
When President Hindenburg dictated his testament in May, he included as his “last wish” that the Hohenzollern monarchy would be restored by Hitler. His son, Oskar von Hindenburg, passed the testament on to Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, who in turn gave it to Hitler on 14 August. The next day, 15 August, Hitler had it published, without any indication of Hindenburg’s “last wish”.
On 1 August, with Hindenburg’s death imminent, the Reichstag had passed the Law on the Head of State of the German Reich, merging the offices of head of state (president) and head of government (chancellor). Immediately after Hindenburg’s death on 2 August, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Werner von Blomberg, ordered all members of the Wehrmacht (armed forces) to take an oath to the Führer.
The wording of the referendum question was:
- The office of the President of the Reich is unified with the office of the Chancellor. Consequently all former powers of the President of the Reich are demised to the Führer and Chancellor of the Reich Adolf Hitler. He himself nominates his substitute.
- Do you, German man and German woman, approve of this regulation provided by this Law?
Of the democratic nature of the referendum, political scientist Arnold Zurcher writes that “there undoubtedly was a great deal” of “intangible official pressure”, but “[probably very little] downright coercion and intimidation at the polls”
Support for merging the offices of president and chancellor was greatest in East Prussia, where 96% voted in favour. Support was lowest in urban districts. It was weakest of all in Hamburg, where just under 80% voted affirmatively (20.4% against). In Aachen, 18.6% voted against. In Berlin, 18.5% of votes were negative and every district reported negative vote share greater than 10%. In the former communist stronghold of Wedding it was 19.7% against. Overall support for the government was lower than in the referendum of 12 November 1933. Where the referendum of 1933 had received support from 89.9% of the total electorate, that of 1934 had only 84.3% support.The regional variation, however, was identical to that in the referendum of 1933.
The next day, August 20, mandatory loyalty oaths were introduced throughout the Reich.
“Article 1. The public officials and the soldiers of the armed forces must take an oath of loyalty on entering service.
1. The oath of loyalty of public officials will be:
‘I swear: I shall be loyal and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, respect the laws, and fulfill my official duties conscientiously, so help me God.’
2. The oath of loyalty of the soldiers of the armed forces will be:
‘I swear by God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.’
Article 3. Officials already in service must swear this oath without delay according to Article 2 number 1
These oaths were pledged to Hitler personally, not the German state or constitution. And they were taken very seriously by members of the German Officers’ Corps with their traditional minded codes of honor, which now elevated obedience to Hitler as a sacred duty and effectively placed the German armed forces in the position of being the personal instrument of Hitler.
(Years later, following the German defeat in World War Two, many German officers unsuccessfully attempted to use the oath as a defense against charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.)
In September, 1934, at the annual Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies, a euphoric Hitler proclaimed, “The German form of life is definitely determined for the next thousand years. The Age of Nerves of the nineteenth century has found its close with us. There will be no revolution in Germany for the next thousand years.