From Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications VOL. 6 NO. 2
Unrecognized Potential: Media Framing of Hitler's Rise to Power, 1930-1933
Articles consistent with the non-credible frame continued to appear throughout the spring and early summer, a period marked by relative stability within the German government and few significant occurrences that drew attention to Hitler and his party. Exceptions included two narrative pieces by Sisley Huddleston, a British journalist who wrote for The Monitor. A front-page article published in March documented his visit to Hitler's "magnificent headquarters" in Munich, where he "radiates his influence over the whole of Germany." He described Hitler as "one of the most remarkable men of our time" who had risen in 1923 from failure to triumph less than ten years later on the basis of popular appeal and oratorical ability. Though Huddleston did not speculate on the duration of his influence, the descriptors he used to describe Hitler and his party's strength supported credible subframes found throughout the piece.65 The second piece, published in July, described Huddleston's experience at one of Hitler's mass meetings. It quantified Hitler's gains in the Reichstag elections the previous year and noted that thousands attended the meeting to hear him speak. Huddleston described in great detail how Hitler, "truly eloquent," had his audience at rapt attention, underscoring his popular appeal and oratorical ability with lexical choices and descriptions of episodes that supported the credible frame.66 But such pieces appeared alongside a number of articles and editorials that undercut Hitler's credibility by pointing either to the strength of the Bruening government or Hitler's lack of political acuity. Three editorials published in The Monitor and The Times throughout the spring stated that the "sober procession" or "fighting attitude" of the Bruening's government would temper the threat of an extremist takeover or even "submerge" the Hitler movement.67 A review of Wyndham Lewis's book Hitler, published in The Monitor in May, stated that Lewis credited Hitler with a "profundity of thought which he certainly does not possess" and that the book would be of value to a reader only if he or she knew "something about Hitler before reading" and took Lewis with "many grains of salt."68
The number of articles containing the credible frame rose briefly in October, when Foreign Minister Julius Curtius resigned. He departure prompted Bruening to dissolve his cabinet and create a stronger one that could oppose Hitler and Hugenberg, leader of the German Nationalists, after the Reichstag reconvened midmonth. In the days preceding the Reichstag's vote on the new cabinet, the Nazis and Nationalists held a rally in Bad Harzburg during which Hitler and Hugenberg demanded immediate control of the national government and declared a "war" on Bruening. The succession of political events left correspondents and editorial writers struggling to determine what the shifts would mean for the balance of power in Germany. Articles immediately following Curtius's resignation and the dissolution of the cabinet noted the moment of instability might allow Hitler to wield greater influence in the Reichstag.69 Some articles and editorials published after the formation of the new cabinet contained a similar theme, particularly those that noted the widespread support Hitler received at the Bad Harzburg rally. A UPI article that ran in The Post on October 12 described the "deafening ovation" the "dapper, ambitious Adolph Hitler and the powerful Dr. Alfred Hugenberg" received from the 600 Germans who attended the rally and heard the leaders' call for the overthrow of the national government.70 The next day, an editorial in The Post called the rally "a startling demonstration of the strength and determination of the element that is opposing Chancellor Bruening."71 The description of the two leaders, coupled with the quantification of their popular support, underscored the proposition that Hitler could capitalize on the government's moment of weakness to achieve his aims.
But the formation and subsequent approval of the new cabinet resulted in coverage that suggested the Bruening government could effectively stem Hitler's aspirations, echoing a theme found earlier in the year and again illustrating how Hitler's portrayal in the press often depended on the perceived stability of the German government. An article headlined "Action in Reich Thwarts Hitler and Hugenberg" noted that after the cabinet's first meeting, "the turbulent activity of the Nationalists and the Fascists seems less menacing" and the question of whether Hitler and Hugenberg could take over the government had been postponed.72 The lexical choices used in the headline — a powerful syntactical framing element — effectively summarized a theme reiterated in the piece. The day before the Reichstag reconvened, The Times ran a piece by Enderis that noted that "rhetorical thunderbolts" let loose at the Bad Harzburg rally "failed to disturb the equanimity of the Chancellor or more sober Reichstag elements" and served to heighten the moderates' sense of responsibility as they prepared to vote on Bruening's new cabinet.73 In regard to Hitler and Hugenberg's intention to introduce motions to revoke support of the new government, dissolve the Reichstag, and hold new elections, the article stated that "government leaders and the bulk of the moderate press are convinced that the nationalists' defiance will dissipate into political puff and smoke." The syntactical elements and lexical choices used in the piece supported the proposition that the opposition forces posed no great threat to Bruening's new cabinet by framing Hitler and Hugenberg as little more than fiery orators incapable of carrying their movements to fruition. Although a handful of analyses and briefs covering Hitler's rise and his party's gains in regional elections lent him some credibility in late 1931,74 the majority of article and editorials published throughout the remainder of the year supported the idea that the German government could keep Hitler in check and that his political influence would eventually fade.75
Just prior to the Bad Harzberg rally, Hindenberg met Hitler for the first time. Details of the meeting were not made public, but the relatively small amount of coverage it received portrayed Hindenberg as patriarchal, practical head of state and Hitler as a young, illogical party leader. The day before the meeting, The Times published a piece that noted Hindenberg was expected to "impart to his visitor some candid advice on the futility of propaganda for a ‘Third Reich' while the second is still under repair."76 The same day, an Associated Press story printed on The Post's front page stated that Hindenberg intended to "talk bluntly to the fiery ‘Nazi' leader, who is young enough to be his son."77 The idea that Hindenberg was to speak "candidly" or "bluntly" to a much younger man about the "futility" of his propaganda for the Third Reich undermined Hitler's credibility by portraying Hindenberg as older and wiser, a theme that endured after the two men met. The Times' article about meeting stated in its lede that Hitler "unfolded his chimerical plans for the Third Reich" in the "coldly practical atmosphere of President von Hindenberg's office."78 The use of "chimerical" and "practical" — contrasting descriptors — reinforced both the notion of the Third Reich's "futility" and Hitler's lack of political experience in the face of the Field Marshal. This theme resurfaced, alongside others that emphasized the temporary nature of Hitler's influence, in the first months of the following year, when the press began to speculate on whether Hitler would run against Hindenberg in the presidential elections in March.
A quick succession of political shakeups in Germany kept the American press occupied in 1932. The presidential elections in March and the runoff in April resulted in a narrow but decisive victory for Hindenberg, who dismissed Bruening as chancellor in May and gave Papen the position. The appointment of a new chancellor resulted in new Reichstag elections held in July, but the Reichstag dissolved after its first meeting, and new elections were held in November. Coverage of Hitler consistent with the credible frame increased during moments of uncertainty about the future of parliamentary rule in Germany, but at no point throughout the year did the credible frame overshadow the non-credible frame.
At the start of 1932, Hindenberg's term in office was quickly coming to an end. New elections were fast approaching, Bruening asked Hitler for the Nazi's agreement to extend the president's term without holding new elections, a move that required a two-thirds vote in the Reichstag. Hitler refused to forego the elections and instead primed himself for candidacy. In mid-February, Hindenberg announced he would seek another term in office, and at the end of the month, Hitler proclaimed his intention to run against the 85-yearold incumbent. Articles and editorials following the revelation that Hitler would oppose Hindenberg generally discounted Hitler's chance of winning against the venerated field marshal by attesting to Hindenberg's prestige or Bruening's relative strength and emphasizing Hitler's Austrian nationality, which would have precluded him from running had he not been appointed a member of the Brunswick legation in Berlin two days after he announced his candidacy.79
Some coverage of Hitler's campaign conveyed his credibility by quantifying his popular support, demonstrated by the number of Germans who attended the campaign speeches he gave throughout the country.80 Between March 10 and March 14, the day after the elections, a four-part series explaining the meaning of Hitlerism ran in The Monitor. The first installment stated that Nazism, which has "permeated every section of the nation," displayed a "capacity for organization unequaled in our times by any except the Bolshevik leaders" and had "evolved into one of the most effective engines of propaganda the modern world has seen."81 The remaining three framed Hitler as a credible force in German politics by heralding the tenets of Nazism, explaining its wide appeal and predicting that the growth of the party would be "epoch-making."82 But the themes found in the series, as well as the articles touting Hitler's popular support, all but disappeared after the presidential election and the subsequent runoff.
On March 13, Hitler received 30 percent of the vote, while Hindenberg received 49.6 percent, a fraction less than the 50 percent he needed to obtain an absolute majority and secure the presidency. Though the results necessitated a runoff, most articles and editorials published in the wake of the election pointed to the relatively low number of votes cast for Hitler as an indication that his party's strength paled in the face of the Republican forces.83 A Times article that broke down the results stated that Hitler's 30 percent was "accepted as the first step toward [the Nazi party's] elimination as a powerful political factor in Germany."84 A Post editorial published the same day asserted that the elections results proved "the forces of disintegration, repudiation and reaction . . . are not as strong as their boasts have made them seem" and that "Hindenberg and his government are stronger than the opposition."85 Editorials in The Monitor and The Times expressed the same opinions.86 The non-credible frame, supported by quantification of Hitler's relatively small amount of electoral support and the proposition that his party's strength had peaked, persisted after Hindenberg was reelected with 53 percent of the vote in the April 10 runoff election.87
News coverage of Hitler surged again in late July, just before the Reichstag elections following Papen's appointment as chancellor in May. Since the presidential election, the Nazis had won substantial gains in multiple regional elections, as well as several concessions from the new cabinet, most notably the decision to hold new Reichstag elections so that the party might achieve greater representation.88 Several articles published just before the elections noted that the results would measure the strength of the Nazi Party, which had by then grown to be the country's single largest, and determine whether the prevailing political attitude in Germany had changed since Hindenberg's reelection.89 These pieces generally supported Hitler's credibility as a political leader by ascribing significance to the elections and acknowledging that Hitler's gains or losses would have a great impact on the future of the Republic.
But the non-credible frame eclipsed the credible frame after July 31, when the elections produced a Reichstag in which no party held a majority. Despite the Nazi party's substantial gains — the 230 seats it earned more than doubled its representation and rendered it the largest party in parliament — most postelection coverage interpreted its failure to secure a majority as an indication of both the party's decline and the relative steadfastness of Papen's cabinet, as conveyed through headlines that emphasized Hitler's lack of majority and the thematic elements found consistently in the content of the coverage.90 An analysis of the results in The Times stated that the nearly fourteen million votes cast for the Nazis only slightly exceeded the number cast for the party during the April 10 runoff elections, "indicating that the party's progress is slowing down and is possibly near to reaching its climax."91 An editorial published in The Times the same day asserted that Hitler had been "stopped" with 37 percent of the vote. The results, it argued, proved that the "Hitler tide" had reached its "high-water mark" and that "the role of Mussolini or Lenin is not for him."92 Rhetorical elements in both pieces, including the quantification of the lack of majority, supported the proposition that Hitler's popularity was waning, a non-credible frame that appeared with greater frequency after the Reichstag elections in November.
The lack of majority given to any one party following the July elections resulted in the dissolution of the Reichstag in mid-September. In October and early November, as the new elections approached, predictions that Hitler would lose votes appeared in coverage of the situation in Germany, nearly all of which reiterated the idea that the Nazi Party had peaked in strength.93 A piece in The Times stated that Germany was "getting tired of the Nazis" and relayed predictions that the party would lose between thirty and fifty of its seats in the Reichstag.94 The prediction held true: The Nazis lost 36 seats on November 6, reducing their number of representatives to 196. Coverage of the loss produced articles and editorials consistent with the non-credible frame, most of which contained rhetorical and syntactic elements that supported the proposition that Nazism, a temporary phenomenon, was fading quickly.95 An article in The Times asserted the party was "at last in its retrogressive state," and an editorial published in the same paper the next day claimed that the ebbing of the Nazi tide proved that "the threat of sole control of the country by Hitler is definitely removed."96
Hitler appeared in a relatively small number of articles in the first weeks of January 1933, the month he was appointed chancellor. Elections in the state of Lippe drew the attention of the American press as Hitler campaigned to regain the losses he suffered in November. The subhead of an Associated Press article that appeared in The Post characterized the Nazi efforts as "desperate," and the piece stated that should theses efforts failed, Hitler's claims to the head of the Reich would be considerably damaged.97 The Nazis won nearly 40 percent of the vote in the state elections, a "minor" victory an article in The Monitor implied would not strengthen Hitler's "waning" cause.98 The article compared the percentage of votes cast for the Nazis January to the number cast in July, a decrease it highlighted as a reason Hitler would not be able to duplicate the victory on the national level. A story in The Times reiterated that idea.99 An Associated Press article contradicted the theme present in the aforementioned articles by noting that the Nazis' relatively small gains were "regarded nevertheless as being a refutation of enemies' assertions that Hitlerism is on the downgrade," and an editorial published the next day lamented Hitler's seeming resurgence and the political uncertainty it created at a time of relative stability within the German government under Schleicher, who had become chancellor the previous month.100
But articles that portrayed Hitler as a man who could have a significant impact on German political affairs — the theme that most often underlay the credible frame — appeared sporadically until Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933, following Schleicher's resignation. A complex series of political machinations allowed a party leader widely believed to be on the decline to become the head of a Reich cabinet based on parliamentary majority. The Nazis' minority representation in the cabinet — Papen's arrangement — appeared to limit Hitler's power, a fact the press readily noted. But a number of articles published in the immediate aftermath of the appointment emphasized its significance by acknowledging that Hitler, despite the makeup of his cabinet, had the power to dissolve the Reichstag and set new elections, which could result in substantial Nazi gains.101 An editorial in The Monitor argued that the "deep change" Hitler's appointment effected throughout Germany could in fact be a positive development if he promoted the interests of the "vast group of sound citizenry" found among his twelve million supporters.102 Articles and editorials such as these bolstered the credible frame by attesting to the lasting significance of Hitler's ascension to one of the most important roles within the German government.
But a greater number of articles published after the appointment aligned with the non-credible frame.103 An article in The Times emphasized that the makeup of Hitler's cabinet left him "no scope for gratification of any dictatorial ambition" and that the real governing power in Germany lay in Papen's hands.104 The article stated that the speed with which the new cabinet was "projected into office is said to have bewildered Herr Hitler even more than its other members and left him cogitating on whether he had been stampeded into taking the Chancellorship on anything but his own terms." The lexical choices used in the piece — "bewildered," "stampeded," — supported the proposition that Hitler's appointment did not endow him with any lasting political influence, but rather curtailed his power and tempered his potential. Another article published in The Times the same day opened with the observation that Hitler's acceptance of the position marked a "radical departure from his former demand that he be made the ‘Mussolini of Germany' as a condition of his assumption of governmental responsibility" and emphasized his party's waning influence by explaining its internal struggles and charting the decline in the number of votes it had garnered since the last Reichstag elections.105 The use of "radical departure" contradicted the "German Mussolini" catchphrase that often supported the credible frame in articles explaining Hitler's rise to prominence.
The credible frame heightened in prevalence following Hindenberg's dissolution of the Reichstag at Hitler's request. Hitler could not obtain a workable majority, and most coverage of Hindenberg's decision conveyed that new elections could give Hitler far greater power than he held at the time, which would boost his credibility as a political leader.106 But not all articles and editorials recognized that possibility. An editorial published in The Times framed Hitler as far less powerful than Hindenberg, Hugenberg, Papen, and the Centrist party that refused to support his party in the interest of creating a parliamentary majority.107 It concluded that come March, when the new elections were to be held, Hitler "may appear to his followers and to the German electorate as a whole to be even more dominated by the enemies into whose arms he has cast himself than he seems today." As the elections neared, The Times published another editorial that asserted that the key figures in the German government had appointed Hitler chancellor "to let him expose to the German public his own futility and then get rid of him forever," a statement that again portrayed Hitler as simply a puppet on Papen and Hindenberg's stage.108
Only after the March 5 elections did the credible frame appear almost exclusively. Though the Nazis won only 44 percent of the total vote — six percent short of a majority —Hugenberg's Nationalists won 8 percent, giving the nationalist bloc a narrow majority in the Reichstag. Every article and editorial published in the wake of the elections recognized that the Nazi victory foreshadowed the end of German's parliamentary system and marked the beginning of its transformation into a totalitarian state under Hitler, two ideas clearly conveyed in both the headlines and content of the stories.109 Articles conveying the shift quantified the Nazis' gains relative to the votes they earned in the November 1932 elections and focused not on his political background or personal attributes but rather how the political goal he had for so long expressed might affect the stability of Europe. The passage of the Enabling Act, which transferred legislative power from the Reichstag to the Reich cabinet for four years, resulted in coverage that underscored themes found in coverage of Germany's last diplomatic elections and left no doubt that Hitler, more than any other figure in the government, controlled the future of the country.110
This analysis reveals that the March 1933 elections constituted a tipping point in coverage of Hitler in the American press, and, by extension, readers' understanding of a man who would become one of the most notorious leaders of the twentieth century. None of the three papers included in this study consistently framed him as a credible political power prior to the Nationalist victory in Germany's last free elections, indicating that many of their readers would have had little reason to believe his growing popularity and eventual appointment as chancellor would result in the end of the Weimar Republic and the relative peace it ensured. This research demonstrates that the American press did recognize and convey the popular appeal of Hitler's movement, but tended to assign greater significance to the Nazis' strength in relation to that of the German government. It also reveals that articles that framed him as a credible leader often contained what might be termed "policy" subframes that focused on his political appeal and ideas, while those that framed him as non-credible often contained what might be termed "personalization" subframes that focused on his background and personal attributes more than his political ideas. Because the presence and prevalence of each frame depended on the stability of the Weimar Republic, this research could serve as a springboard for other studies of the relationship between the perceived strength of foreign governments and media coverage of extremist leaders and groups that wish to unseat them.
Katherine Blunt, Journalism and History, Elon University