At the age of forty-five he became Foreign Minister and Chancellor of Germany. He was a Roman Catholic member of the Centre Party and became Chancellor during the Great Depression (q.v.). There were three million unemployed in Germany, and Brüning tried to deal with this by deflation, increasing taxation and cutting government expenditure – the classic 3-pointed economists’ dream – which rarely works.
He realised that his majority in the Reichstag would not be increased by these harsh measures, and therefore introduced an enforcing Article (48) in the constitution of the Weimar Republic (q.v.), by which the President may issue decrees with the full force of the Law behind them – in an emergency. Brüning knew that Germany was living in a state of emergency, but he was dependent on President von Hindenburg (q.v.). He did not possess a majority in the Reichstag, and when the socialists put forward a motion demanding withdrawal of his decrees, he dissolved the government and insisted on a general election. The election, in September 1930 destroyed all Brüning’s hopes, as the extremist parties greatly increased their participation in government: the Communists for example won more than seventy seats, but the biggest shock came when it was found the National Socialists had increased their seats from 12 in 1918 to 107 in 1930. It was suddenly the second largest party in the Reichstag after the SPD with 143 seats. In all 40% of the people of Germany had voted against the Weimar Republic.
Brüning could rely only on his Centre Party, with the SPD supporting it to avoid the socialists winning even more seats. He increased his draconic measures and unemployment rose to six million. Hating the Nazis, he tried to disband both the SS and the SA, and persuaded the ancient Hindenberg, much against his will, to stand for re-election when his term of office ended in 1932. Hindenburg made it clear that he found it distasteful to stand against a Communist (Thalmann) and ex-corporal Hitler, and things grew worse when half the population of Germany voted against him. It is said the old general never forgave Brüning for this.
Determined to reduce unemployment, the Chancellor decided on a public works programme, including the breaking-up of some defunct East Prussian estates and re-settling more than half a million workers on them. German aristocrats (the Junkers) now joined Brüning’s enemies, moaning that Brüning was an ‘agrarianBolshevik’. Then Hindenburg refused to sign any new decrees. After the Nazi take-over Brüning wisely decided to resign and get out of Germany as fast as he could. He thus escaped the pogrom of the ‘NightoftheLongKnives’ (q.v.) in which we would certainly have been killed.
Establishing himself at Harvard University in the United States, Brüning became a popular lecturer, and apart from a brief sojourn in Cologne in the 1950s stayed in the US until his death at a great age, in 1970. He was a man of integrity and little luck, becoming prominent in German politics at the worst possible time.