The Reichstag fire

reichstag fire
The Reichstag ablaze in 1933

Hitler became chancellor at the end of January 1933 but his grip on power was still far from secure. With 196 seats, the NSDAP had no absolute majority in the Reichstag and would have to rely on coalitions or agreements with other parties to pass legislation. The hostile Social Democrat Party (SPD) and Communist Party (KPD) held a combined 221 Reichstag seats, so could out-vote the Nazis. Only three cabinet ministers, including Hitler himself, were Nazis. Many Landtags (state government assemblies) were still controlled by anti-Nazi parties, such as the SPD. Germany was still in the grip of economic depression, with industrial production shrinking and six million Germans unemployed. Confronted with these challenges, Hitler’s fate seemed no different to the 14 chancellors who had come before him. Yet in just a few weeks the Nazi leader had dispensed with most restrictions on his power, laying the foundation for absolute dictatorship. The catalyst for this transformation of German politics was a destructive fire in the Reichstag building in Berlin. At around 9pm on February 27th 1933, someone discovered one of the building’s hallways ablaze. The city’s fire brigade was quickly summoned and had the fire under control within two hours. Despite this, the fire gutted much of the building, destroying the contents of many offices. Investigators found flammable material scattered around the building and there was evidence a chemical accelerant had been scattered on carpets.

While the Reichstag fire was undoubtedly the result of arson, exactly who was responsible remains one of history’s great mysteries. Berlin police arrested Marinus van der Lubbe, simple-minded Dutchman, who was found crouching half-naked at the rear of the building. Van der Lubbe seemed the perfect suspect. He was found in possession of flammable material and fire-lighters; he had affiliations with underground communist movements and a criminal record for arson. The Dutchman confessed to police, claiming he was trying to incite German workers to rise up against the Nazis. Yet there were also holes in his story. Van der Lubbe was half-blind, dim-witted and incapable of complex planning; he also had a history of claiming responsibility for things he had not done. Such was the volume of flammable material scattered around the Reichstag building that van der Lubbe, if he was involved, could scarcely have carried it alone. It seems likely he was aided by Gestapo agents or fellow communists, or perhaps installed as a ‘patsy’ to take responsibility for the fire.

Regardless of who was responsible, Hitler seized upon the Reichstag fire as a means of extending his power over Germany. Hitler, Josef Goebbels and vice-chancellor Franz von Papen had all arrived at the building as the fire was being extinguished. There they met Herman Goering, who was fulminating about it being a communist plot, possibly even a signal to communists to initiate a revolution. Hitler told von Papen: “This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice-Chancellor”. The following day the Nazi leader declared a state of emergency and asked President Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. This emergency power authorised the president to rule by decree, to ensure public safety and order. Hitler and his ministers drafted the Verordnung des Reichsprasidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat (‘Presidential order for the protection of People and State’), better known as the Reichstag Fire Decree:

“Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of opinion, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”

The decree was worded so broadly it effectively allowed the Nazis to define their own legal limits. Hitler and his offsiders could marginalise political opponents by imposing restrictions on the press, banning political meetings and marches, and intercepting communications. The legal concept of habeas corpus was suspended, allowing the regime to detain suspected terrorists or revolutionaries without charge. According to Douglas Reed, a British writer, “when Germany awoke, a man’s home was no longer his castle. He could claim no protection from the police, he could be indefinitely detained without charges; his property could be seized and his communications over-heard”.

“The Enabling Act gave the executive branch full power to rule, which included creating and enforcing laws. Hitler vehemently declared that the laws the Nazi Party would implement were for the good of Germany and that the people of Germany would be relieved of their current economic problems. But Hitler declared that he could not do this without the Enabling Act.”
Everette Lemons

As wide-ranging as it was, the Reichstag fire decree was only a temporary measure. Four weeks later, on March 23rd, the Nazis introduced the Enabling Act into the Reichstag. A short bill containing five articles, the Enabling Act allowed Hitler to govern without reference to the Reichstag. The chancellor and his ministers could rule by decree, bypassing the constitution, initiating taxes and spending and determining foreign policy, all without legislation or Reichstag approval. This new act was presented as a five-year measure, scheduled to expire on April 1st 1937. Hitler appeared in the Reichstag the day before it voted on the Enabling Act, promising to use its powers to root out troublemakers and secure the state. The act was eventually passed 444-94, meeting the required two-thirds margin. The Nazis rigged the vote by arresting dozens of communist and social democratic Reichstag members while striking a deal with the Centre Party. More than two-dozen Reichstag representatives did not attend the vote, after being intimidated and threatened by SA storm-troopers.

Neutral observers and the foreign press recognised the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act as an opportunistic power-grab. One British cartoon depicted Hitler as Nero, with Hindenburg whispering “This is a heaven-sent opportunity my lad. If you can’t be a dictator now you never will”. The British and American press published ominous reports about the sweeping powers given to Hitler. Yet some also hinted that such a measure was inevitable, blaming the unrest on communists and expressing relief someone in Germany was now sufficiently empowered to deal with the threat of a communist revolution.

1. In late February 1933, fire broke out in the Reichstag building in Berlin, gutting the interior.

2. The fire was condemned by leading Nazis as the work of communists, possibly to spark a revolution.

3. Hitler convinced Hindenburg to issue a presidential decree granting him wide-ranging emergency powers.

4. This was followed in March by the Enabling Act, giving the Nazis dictatorial control for a five-year period.

5. The act passed the Enabling Act 444-94, due to anti-communist paranoia, deal-making and SA intimidation.

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