Otto Meissner (born March 13, 1880 in Bischweile (today: Bischwiller) in Alsace - died May 27, 1953 in Munich) was head of the Office of the Reich President during the entire period of the Weimar Republic under Friedrich Ebert and Paul von Hindenburg and, finally, at the beginning of the Nazi era under Adolf Hitler.
The son of a postal official, Meissner studied law in Strasbourg from 1898 to 1903, where he also became a member of the Straßburg Student Youth Fraternity (Burschenschaft) Germania. Later he also studied in Berlin and earned his Doctor of Laws in 1908, at the age of 28, in Erlangen, Bavaria. Afterwards, be became a bureacrat for the national railroad, the Reichsbahn, in Strasbourg. Between 1915 and 1917 he participated in the First World War in an infantry regiment. Up to 1919 he was more active behind the front, first in Bucharest, Rumania, then in Kiev, and finally as a German business agent for the Ukrainian government.
Thanks to his good contacts, in 1919 Meissner became “Acting Advisor in the Bureau of the Reich President” (who at that time was the socialist Friedrich Ebert), and by 1920 rose to the position of “Ministerial Director and Head of the Bureau of the Reich President.” Ebert named Meissner to the post of State Secretary in 1923.
When Hitler fused the functions of Head of State (here, the Reich President) and the Head of Government (the Chancellery) in 1934, Meissner's office was renamed the “Presidential Chancellery” and restricted in its responsibilities to representative and formal matters. In 1937, Meissner was appointed to the newly-created position of “State Minister of the Rank of a Reich Minister and Chief of the Presidential Chancellery of the Führer and Reich Chancellor.”
After the Second World War, Meissner was arrested by the Allies and interrogated as a witness in the Nuremberg Trials. In July 1947, he appeared as a character witness for the accused former State Secretary Dr. Schlegelberger. In 1949, he was finally prosecuted himself in the “Wilhelmstrasse trial,” but the court acquitted him on April 14. Two years later, in May of 1949, he was accused again, in Munich, and adjudged a fellow traveler. His appeal was turned down, but the proceedings called to a halt in January 1952.
In 1950, Meissner published a memoir covering his unusual bureaucrat's career in a book entitled State Secretary under Ebert, Hindenburg and Hitler.
Meissner's Role in History
Meissner, who lived with his family in the Palace of the Reich President between 1929 and 1939, undoubtedly enjoyed major influence upon the Reich presidents, especially Hindenburg. Together with Kurt von Schleicher and a few others, Meissner, in the years 1929 and 1939, furthered the dissolution of the parliamentary system by means of a civil presidential cabinet.
His role in the appointment of Hitler to Reich Chanceller in December 1932-January 1933 remains a controversy among historians. As member of the “Camarilla,” Meissner was certainly no small influence as State Secretary, due to his close relations with Reich President von Hindenburg. Together with Oskar von Hindenburg and Franz von Papen, Meissner organized the negotiations with Hitler to depose von Schleicher and appoint Hitler to the post of Reich Chancellor. For the Nazis' part, the talks were facilitated through Wilhelm Keppler, Joachim von Ribbentrop and the banker Kurt Freiherr von Schröder, a former officer and head of the old-guard conservative “Herrenklub” (Gentlemen's club) in Berlin, in which von Papen was also active. Neither Hitler nor Hindenburg, as of the end of 1932, would have initiated contact to one another, so great was their mutual distaste for each other.
Meissner submitted his resignation in 1933, but was turned down, whereupon he assumed responsibilty primarily for delegational duties. In 1937, the Nazi regime raised him to the rank of Reich Minister, with the title, “Chief of the Presidential Chancellery of the Führer and the Reich Chancellor. But politically, his influence in the Hitler regime was distinctly minor.