If President Hindenburg’s will had been published the German people might never have given Hitler absolute power.
‘What if history” is usually “so what history”. What might have happened can never compete with what did.
But very occasionally history throws up a moment that perfectly illustrates the way that tiny decisions can have vast consequences. One such is the story of Hindenburg’s long-lost last will and testament.
The huge trove of MI5 documents declassified earlier this month includes a file on a pre-war German defector by the splendidly bulky name of Baron Fritz Günther von Tschirschky und Bögendorff. This aristocratic diplomat had been a confidant of Paul von Hindenburg, the venerated field marshal who served as Germany’s president from 1925 until his death in 1934.
Tschirschky said he had helped to draft Hindenburg’s last will and testament, in which the dying statesman, a powerful political figure, disavowed Hitler and urged Germany to embrace democracy.
Had this document been revealed and published, Tschirschky later claimed, it would have stymied Hitler’s rise, perhaps prevented the war, and certainly changed the course of history. But Hitler found out about Hindenburg’s will and destroyed it.
The two men despised each other. Hitler, in Hindenburg’s eyes, was a jumped-up “Bohemian corporal” (he knew perfectly well he was Austrian), while Hitler privately scorned Hindenburg as “that old reactionary”. Hindenburg was persuaded to run for re-election in 1932 as the only man who could prevent Hitler from winning the presidency.
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But in 1933, the 84-year-old Hindenburg bowed to Hitler’s repeated demands and appointed the Nazi leader Chancellor. As Nazi violence grew, Hindenburg may have considered sacking Hitler and declaring martial law. Instead, it seems, he drew up a will, a bomb timed to go off posthumously and blow Hitler off course.
According to Baron Tschirschky, Hindenburg’s will was a powerful attack on Hitler’s ambition; he stated that the army should be independent of politics, and called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and the permanent separation of the legislative and executive branches of government. Tschirschky told The Times in 1947: “He said further that he wanted the rights of parliament established under a two-tier system on democratic lines, like that of Britain, and that he wanted all racial and religious discrimination abolished.”
Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934. A few hours later, the Reich Government announced that the offices of president and chancellor would now been combined under Hitler, as the supreme Führer. A plebiscite was called, to allow the German people to express its collective opinion of Hitler’s unprecedented new role as both head of the government and head of state.
Hitler got wind of the existence of the will, and gave orders to “ensure that this document comes into my possession as soon as possible”. Colonel Oskar von Hindenburg, son of the late President but a loyal Nazi, duly handed his father’s will over. It has never been found.
Four days before the plebiscite, however, the Nazis announced the discovery of Hindenburg’s “political testament”, which gave an account of his political career and included complimentary references to Hitler; it may have been a forgery.
Hindenburg’s apparent endorsement of Hitler from beyond the grave came at a crucial moment. On August 19, 1934, a fortnight after Hindenburg’s death, some 38 million German voters approved Hitler’s usurpation of power, with fewer than five million voting against it. The following day, the Nazis brought in the mandatory oath of loyalty for every member of the German army. Hitler was now all-powerful.
Would the revelation of Hindenburg’s true opinion have stopped the Nazi juggernaut? Certainly the old war horse was hugely influential, and his will would have proved a rallying point for Hitler’s opponents. At the very least, the publication of the will would have demonstrated to the world the Nazis’ determination to manipulate and lie in pursuit of power.
Baron Tschirschky insisted: “Hitler would never have come into power, and there would have been no war, if the wishes of Hindenburg had been known to the German people.” Instead, an opponent of Hitler in life was represented as a supporter after his death.
“My father has himself seen in Adolf Hitler his direct successor,” declared Oskar von Hindenburg.
We tend to see history in terms of unstoppable forces, great movements of economics or ideology that dwarf individual choice and volition. But small things also change history — the whistle-blower, the resister, the single, history-defining document.
Hitler undoubtedly destroyed the original will, but two drafts survived. One was tracked down by Nazi agents to a bank account in Switzerland, from which it was removed and destroyed. The other was kept by Tschirschky.
As the Nazis tightened their grip on power, Tschirschky, as an opponent of Nazism and a representative of the old regime, came under increasing suspicion. He told the British authorities he had survived several assassination attempts. In 1935, he was summoned to Berlin by the Gestapo. He fled to Britain, but was never entirely trusted by MI5 and spent much of the war in an internment camp.
Before leaving Germany, fearing that the document in his possession would be enough to ensure his summary execution, he burnt what is believed to be the last remaining copy of Hindenburg’s will.
That document might, conceivably, have prevented the conflagration that would soon engulf Europe. A single match ensured that it did not.