Alfred Hugenberg was a highly influential politician and businessman in Weimar Germany. Hugenberg was a well-known nationalist and despised the Treaty of Versailles. He financed and led the right wing nationalistic German National People’s Party and at the 1931 Harzburg Front Hugenberg unsuccessfully tried to bring Hitler into his fold – something the future Fűhrer refused to do.
Alfred Hugenberg was born in Hannover on June 16th 1865. He had a comfortable childhood and went on to study law and then economics at Gottingen, Heidelberg, Berlin and then Strasburg. He developed right wing nationalist beliefs and helped to found the General German League in 1891, which in 1894 developed into the Pan- German League. Anti-socialism and ultra-nationalistic, the Pan-German League gained a following among the middle and upper classes who warily eyed the rise of socialism among the German working class. Strikes, strike threats, wage demands, better working conditions etc. all seemed very un-German to members of the Pan-German League.
Hugenberg joined the Prussian Civil Service in 1903 but moved to the giant Krupp’s industrial concern in 1909 and left in 1918. His primary task was to keep the finances of Krupp’s in order – a task he excelled in. His position brought him into contact with Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach who was head of the industrial giant. Krupp shared a great many of Hugenberg’s belief and they formed a close relationship. After leaving Krupp’s in 1918, Hugenberg went into business by himself. During the era of hyperinflation, he bought up numerous newspapers very cheaply. He developed his media empire during the so-called ‘Golden Years’ of Weimar. By the next economic crisis of 1929, he was Weimar’s biggest media magnate and not only owned a great number of newspaper titles but also a cinema chain – Universal Film AG. Hugenberg used the numerous outlets that he had to attack the politicians of Weimar. He also involved himself in politics and in 1928 became chairman of the German National People’s Party. Hugenberg wanted to impose his extreme nationalistic views on the party. In 1931, he produced the party’s new manifesto. Hugenberg called for the immediate restoration of the monarchy, the tearing up of the Treaty of Versailles, much greater contact between Germany and Austria, compulsory military service, a new German Empire and a reduction in the perceived economic power the Jews had in Weimar’s economy.
Hugenberg’s most immediate target was Chancellor Heinrich Brűning who he believed was pushing Weimar inexorably towards socialism. Hugenberg was one of the most influential men at the 1931 Harzburg Front conference which met with the specific aim of trying to persuade the ageing President, Hindenburg, to sack Brűning. However, there were those in the party who believed that he had pushed it too far to the right and that it would end up alienating itself from the voters. A number of former members of the party had already left in late 1929 and formed the Conservative People’s Party. Others were also wary that Hugenberg wanted to pursue the vote of those involved in agriculture and that he had turned his back on industry despite his time with Krupp’s.
While a great deal of what Hugenberg preached had major similarities with the ideas of Adolf Hitler, they were not obvious political partners. First Hitler had no intention of sharing power with anyone and secondly the Nazi Party had a following not only among the middle class but also among the working class despite the existence of the Communist Party and a number of socialist parties. Hugenberg had never given any hint that he was after the support of the working class but he believed that he needed it if was to push for power. He made generous donations to the Nazi Party coffers and ensured that his media empire gave Hitler and the Nazi Party favourable press. Hitler had repeated what Hugenberg had previously stated at the Harzburg Front but he had already concluded that Hugenberg merely wanted to use the Nazi Party for his own intentions and he was not prepared to go along with it. Also one of Hitler closest confidantes, Joseph Goebbels, had developed a deep dislike of Hugenberg and it is almost certain that Goebbels used his easy access to Hitler to ensure that the future Fűhrer’s mind was necessarily poisoned. Matters were made worse when Hugenberg refused to support Hitler in the 1932 Presidential election. In fact, Hugenberg encouraged a rival to stand in opposition to Hitler and von Hindenburg – Theodore Duesterberg.
However, Hitler did not have it all his own way. In the 1932 election for the Reichstag, the German National People’s Party took seats away from the Nazis. It was at this point that both Hitler and Hugenberg attempted to build bridges between the two parties. They had a number of private meetings but they came to little after Hugenberg refused to support Hitler’s demand that should they form a government, Nazi officials should be at the head of the interior ministries of Prussia and Germany. This would have given the Nazi Party enormous power at a regional level in Germany and Hugenberg not only recognised this but also baulked at the idea.
Hugenberg’s belief that he could “box Hitler in” counted for nothing when Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30th 1933. However, the German National People’s Party (DNVP) held 52 seats in the Reichstag – something Hitler could not ignore before the March 1933 Enabling Act. He made Hugenberg Minister of the Economy and Minister of Agriculture. The latter post was an attempt by Hitler to win over the landowners in Nazi Germany. However, in reality once the Enabling Act was passed, Hitler had no time for Hugenberg – and he certainly had no need for him. Hugenberg became an increasingly isolated figure even upsetting the German population by increasing the price of butter to help Germany’s dairy farmers. Hugenberg sealed his own political fate when in June 1933 he attended the London World Economic Conference and announced that the best way Germany could fight the economic depression of the 1930’s was to develop a new colonial empire in Africa and expand into Eastern Europe. This caused outrage at the conference and Hitler, ironically, had to disown the comments. Hugenberg also spoke out against job creation schemes that were at the heart of the Nazi’s plan to reduce unemployment. A less than subtle message was given to Hugenberg when other leaders of the German National People’s Party were arrested by the SA. Hugenberg resigned from the Nazi cabinet on June 29th 1933. It was only after this that Hitler agreed to an accord whereby some members of the DNVP considered loyal to the Nazi Party were allowed to join it while the DNVP officially dissolved.
Hitler allowed Hugenberg to remain in the Reichstag as a “guest member” There were 22 of these "guest members" but 639 Nazi Deputies. Hitler then took over many of his media concerns, which came under the control of Goebbels. Hugenberg was left with some and he sold them to the Nazi government in 1943 for a good price.
At the end of World War Two, Hugenberg was arrested but in 1949 he was classed as a “fellow traveller”, which meant that he was not a Nazi and was allowed to keep his property and his business and share portfolio.
Alfred Hugenberg died on 12th March 1951