The plenary chamber of the Reichstag following the 1933 fire. Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14367 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
This article is an edited transcript of The Rise of the Far Right in Europe in the 1930s with Frank McDonough on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 23 November 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
There were a number of key moments during the Nazis’ process of dismantling German democracy in the early 1930s, including the burning down of the parliament building, which occurred in February 1933, just after Adolf Hitler had come to power. That particular moment wasn’t actually planned by the Nazis – at least, not supposedly – but they made sure to take advantage of it nonetheless.
1. The Reichstag fire
Following the burning down of the Reichstag, as the German parliament building is known, a communist named Marinas van der Lubbe was arrested. There was then an elaborate show trial where the Nazis brought in a number of accomplices, one of whom was a famous Bulgarian communist.
And the trial was almost farcical because Hitler didn’t have the judiciary on his side. It threw out the conspiracy theory that the fire was the cause of a vast communist plot by the Communist Party and that van der Lubbe was just the Lee Harvey Oswald.
So the judiciary actually acquitted the four communists who were on trial with van der Lubbe, and van der Lubbe was seen instead to be the sole culprit. Hitler went crazy. And powerful Nazi official Hermann Göring said, “We should move against the judiciary”.
But Hitler compromised, saying, “No, we can’t move against the judiciary yet, we’re not powerful enough”. And that showed him to be a shrewd politician in the peacetime period.
2. The Enabling Act
We tend to underestimate Hitler but his regime made a lot of compromises in the name of political expediency. Another compromise, and the second big moment in the Nazis’ dismantling of Germany’s democracy, was the Enabling Act.
That legislation, which was passed by the German parliament in March 1933, was basically asking the parliament to vote itself out of existence. Hitler was able to get the Act passed because he had a majority with the DNVP, a conservative party, and then managed to win over the Catholic Centre Party – Zentrum.
The only people who voted against the legislation were the members of the Social Democratic Party in what was a very brave move.
The communists had already been excluded from the parliament at that point due to a decree that was issued following the Reichstag fire – the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and the State
So really, the Enabling Act did away with parliament; it could no longer restrain the Nazi leader.
But Hitler had also been empowered by the Reichstag fire decree, which gave him emergency powers and meant he could enact laws and pass laws himself. He no longer had to worry about President Paul von Hindenburg using Article 48 of the constitution to suppress all laws of the landunder a state of emergency.
The Reichstag fire decree itself imposed a state of emergency – something that continued all the way through the Third Reich. In fact, both that decree and the Enabling Act remained in place throughout the duration of the Third Reich.
3. The suppression of other political parties
The third main route to Hitler’s ultimate power was the suppression of other political parties. He basically asked the parties to wind themselves up or face the consequences. And they did, one by one, like a pack of cards.
On 14 July 1933, he passed a law that meant that only the Nazi Party could exist in German society. So from that point on, he had a dictatorship on paper except for President von Hindenburg, the only person left standing in his way.
Von Hindenburg’s death was therefore another significant moment, after which Hitler combined the roles of chancellor and president into something that he called the “führer”, or leader.
And from that point on, his dictatorship was consolidated.
Of course, he still had to worry about one other remaining power in the state – the army. The army was still independent at that point and it remained an independent force throughout the Third Reich. In many ways, it was the only restraining influence on Hitler. As we know, the army planned a coup to kill Hitler during the war.
The greatest example of that is the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, which was really a private-public finance initiative between a major company, the chemical company IG Farben, which ran all the industry at the camp, and the SS, which ran the camp itself.
So you can see that Nazi Germany was really a kind of power cartel between three groups: Hitler and his elite (including the SS though not really the party itself); the army, which had huge influence and power; and big business.