A referendum on merging the posts of Chancellor and President was held in Germany on 19 August 1934, after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg 17 days earlier. The German leadership sought to gain approval for Adolf Hitler's assumption of supreme power. The referendum was associated with widespread intimidation of voters, and Hitler used the resultant large "yes" vote to claim public support for his activities as the de facto head of state of Germany. In fact, he had assumed these offices and powers immediately upon von Hindenburg's death and used the referendum to legitimize this move, taking the title Führer und Reichskanzler (Führer and Chancellor).
Hitler had known as early as April 1934 that Hindenburg would likely be dead before the year was out. He spent much of the spring and summer working to get the armed forces to support him as Hindenburg's successor. Hitler was well aware that with the passage of the Enabling Act and the banning of all parties other than the Nazis a year earlier, Hindenburg was the only check on his power. Hindenburg still had the right to dismiss Hitler from office, which was now the only remedy by which Hitler could be legally dismissed.
On 1 August, with Hindenburg's death imminent, Hitler had the cabinet pass the "Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich," which merged the offices of president (head of state) and chancellor (head of government) under the title of Leader and Chancellor (Führer und Reichskanzler). Hindenburg died the following day, and two hours later Hitler issued a decree announcing that in accordance with this law, he had assumed the president's powers. He publicly argued that the presidency had become so linked with Hindenburg that the title should not be used again.
When President Hindenburg dictated his testament in May, he included as his "last wish" that Hitler restore the Hohenzollern monarchy. 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".
The wording of the referendum question was:
The government used widespread intimidation and electoral fraud to secure a large "yes" vote. This included stationing storm troopers at polling stations and forcing clubs and societies to march to polling stations escorted by Nazi storm troopers and then vote in public. In some places polling booths were removed or banners reading "only traitors enter here" hung over the entrances to discourage secret voting. In addition, many ballot papers were pre-marked with "yes" votes, spoiled ballot papers were frequently counted as having been "yes" votes, and many "no" votes were recorded to have been in favour of the referendum question. The extent of this forgery meant that in some areas the number of votes recorded to have been cast was greater than the number of people able to vote.
On the other hand, the Nazis made little effort to prevent either the casting or tabulation of negative or invalid votes in districts that were known to have large populations of Jews, Poles and other ethnic minorities. As was the case in November 1933, the Nazi leadership considered the expected unfavourable results in such areas to be useful in their propaganda as proof of disloyalty to the Reich. This was the last national vote in which Jews and other minorities were allowed to cast ballots prior to their being stripped of citizenship rights the following year upon enactment of the Nuremberg Laws.
The relative lack of support in Hamburg in 1933 had prompted Hitler to declare a national holiday on 17 August 1934 so that he could address the German people directly over the 4.3 million registered radio sets.
The referendum itself, as well as all efforts to make Hitler head of state, actually violated the Enabling Act. While it gave Hitler the right to pass laws that ran counter to the constitution, it stated that the president's powers were to remain "undisturbed," which has long been interpreted to forbid any attempt to tamper with the presidency. Additionally, the constitution had been amended in 1932 to make the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, first in the line of succession to the presidency–and even then, only on an interim basis until fresh elections.
Support for merging the offices of president and chancellor was greatest in East Prussia, where official figures show that 96% voted in favour. Support was lowest in urban districts. It was least strong 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. The extent of the intimidation influenced the size of the "yes" vote. 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.
Some in the Nazi leadership were disappointed by the results of the referendum. For instance, Joseph Goebbels' diary entry for 22 August speaks of the referendum as a failure: "Initial results: very bad. Then better. Finally over 38 million for the Führer. I expected more. The Catholics failed Rosenberg!" Nevertheless, historian Ian Kershaw has judged that even after accounting for the manipulation of the voting process, the results "reflected the fact that Hitler had the backing, much of it fervently enthusiastic, of the great majority of the German people" at the time.
|Source: Nohlen & Stöver|