The transition from Weimar democracy to Nazi dictatorship came faster than anyone could have predicted. When Hitler was appointed chancellor on January 30th 1933, his grip on power was no stronger than any of the 14 men who had previously filled the office. The NSDAP lacked an absolute majority in the Reichstag and had actually lost 34 seats in the November 1932 election. Only three of the twelve men in Hitler’s cabinet, including Hitler himself, were NSDAP members. Hindenburg retained the constitutional authority to replace Hitler at any time. And while Hitler had powerful supporters in the military, the media and big business, he also had many critics who condemned his appointment as a travesty against democracy. Yet despite these apparent weaknesses, within just a few weeks Hitler had cemented himself in power, shredded the last vestiges of Weimar republicanism and laid the foundation for absolute dictatorship.
The catalyst for this radical expansion of Nazi power 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 had the fire under control within two hours, but not before it had gutted the building. The signs of arson were apparent: flammable material was scattered around the building and some kind of chemical accelerant had been scattered on carpets. Exactly who was responsible 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. He was almost the ideal suspect, having affiliations with the communist underground and a criminal record for arson. Van der Lubbe later confessed to police, albeit under torture. Yet there was considerable evidence that van der Lubbe had assistance, either from NSDAP agents or fellow communists.
Regardless of who was to blame, Hitler seized upon the Reichstag fire as a means of expanding his power. Hitler and vice-chancellor Franz von Papen arrived on the scene as the fire was being extinguished; there they met NSDAP powerbroker Hermann Goering, who was fulminating 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 the chancellor declared a state of emergency and asked President Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, which allowed the president to rule by decree if public safety or order was under threat. 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 that it allowed the Nazis to define their own legal limits. Hitler and his ministers 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 suspected terrorists to be detained without charge for indefinite periods.
But 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 to govern without consulting or seeking endorsement from the Reichstag. The chancellor and his ministers could rule by decree, bypassing the constitution, passing legislation and determining foreign policy, all without the legislature. This new act was presented as a five-year emergency measure, set to expire on April 1st 1937. The day before the Reichstag voted on the Enabling Act, Hitler appeared in the assembly and delivered an impassioned speech, promising to root out troublemakers but also to uphold German Christian values. The act was passed 444-94, thus 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. In late February 1933, a 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 Reichstag 444-94, due to anti-communist paranoia, deal-making and SA intimidation.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “From Weimar democracy to Nazi dictatorship”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/towards-a-nazi-dictatorship/.