When Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in January 1933, his grip on power was no stronger than any of the 14 men who preceded him. Within 20 months, Hitler had dismantled or disempowered Weimar state institutions and installed himself as Führer (absolute leader) of Germany. The transition from Weimar democracy to Nazi dictatorship in 1933-34 was swift and deliberate.
When Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, this position remained tenuous. His party, the National Socialists (NSDAP), had no absolute majority in the Reichstag. They had, in fact, lost 34 seats in the November 1932 election.
In executive government, only two of the other 12 men in Hitler’s cabinet were NSDAP members (Wilhelm Frick and Hermann Goering). Importantly, President Paul von Hindenburg retained the constitutional authority to dismiss and replace Hitler at any time.
While Hitler had accumulated powerful supporters in the military, the press and big business, he had many critics who considered his appointment at best an error, at worst a political travesty.
Despite these limitations, within just a few weeks Hitler had cemented himself in power, shredded the last vestiges of Weimar republicanism and laid the foundations for an absolute dictatorship.
The Reichstag fire
The catalyst for a radical expansion of Nazi power was a destructive fire in the Reichstag building in Berlin. Though its origins are unclear, Hitler declared the Reichstag fire as the first sign of an imminent communist revolution.
At around 9pm on February 27th 1933, one of the Reichstag building’s hallways was found ablaze. The city’s fire brigade had the fire under control within two hours but not before it had gutted the building. There was evidence of arson: flammable material had been scattered around the building and chemical accelerant had been sprayed on carpets.
Exactly who was responsible for the Reichstag fire remains one of history’s great mysteries. The Berlin police found Marinus van der Lubbe, a simple-minded Dutchman, crouching half-naked at the rear of the building and with flammable material and fire-lighters in his possessions.
Van der Lubbe was almost the ideal suspect. He had affiliations with the communist underground and a criminal record for arson. He later confessed to police, albeit under torture. There is a body of evidence that suggests van der Lubbe had assistance, either from NSDAP agents or fellow communists.
Hitler makes his move
Regardless of who was responsible, Hitler seized upon the Reichstag fire, promoting it as a threat to the national government and using it as a premise for expanding his power.
Hitler, vice-chancellor Franz von Papen and NSDAP minister Hermann Goering arrived on the scene as the fire was being extinguished. Goering fulminated about it being a communist plot, possibly the trigger for a communist revolution. Hitler told von Papen: “This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice-Chancellor”.
The following day, Hitler declared a state of emergency and asked Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. This emergency power allowed the president to rule by decree if public safety or order was under threat.
The Reichstag Fire Decree
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.”
This decree was worded so broadly, it effectively allowed Hitler and the NSDAP to set their own legal limits. They could marginalise political opponents by imposing restrictions on the press, banning political meetings and marches and intercepting communications. The legality of habeas corpus was suspended, allowing suspected terrorists to be detained without charge for indefinite periods.
The Enabling Act
The Reichstag Fire Decree was only a temporary measure. Four weeks later, on March 23rd, the Nazis introduced the Enabling Act into the Reichstag. This short bill, containing five articles, effectively allowed Hitler and his ministers to govern without consulting or seeking endorsement from the Reichstag.
Under the terms of the act, the chancellor and cabinet could rule by decree, bypassing the constitution, passing legislation and determining foreign policy, all without the legislature.
The Enabling Act was presented as a five-year emergency measure, set to expire on April 1st 1937.
A “Heaven-sent opportunity”
The day before the Reichstag voted on the Enabling Act, Hitler appeared in the assembly and delivered an impassioned speech. In it, he promised to root out troublemakers in order to uphold and protect German Christian values.
The Enabling Act was passed 444-94, gaining the two-thirds margin required. But the NSDAP had minimised opposition: it struck a deal with the Centre Party, then arrested or intimidated dozens of SPD and KPD deputies, preventing them from voting.
Observers inside and outside Germany recognised the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act as an opportunistic grab for total power. In Britain, one cartoon depicted Hitler as Nero, with Hindenburg whispering into his ear: “This is a heaven-sent opportunity my lad. If you can’t be a dictator now you never will”.
1. Hitler’s elevation to the chancellorship did not immediately bring about Nazi dictatorship. That began soon after as the NSDAP leader exploited fears of a revolution in Germany.
1. In late February 1933, a deliberately lit fire broke out in the Reichstag building in Berlin. It blazed for around two hours, gutting much of the building.
2. The fire was condemned by Hitler and other leading Nazis as the work of communists. In response, Hitler convinced Hindenburg to grant him wide-ranging emergency powers.
4. The Reichstag fire decree was followed in March by the Enabling Act. This decree gave the Nazis sweeping emergency powers for a five-year period.
5. The Enabling Act passed the Reichstag 444-94 due to a deal with the Centre Party, coupled with anti-communist paranoia and intimidation by the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung ‘Brownshirts’. This act became the foundation stone of a Nazi dictatorship.