On 23 March 1933, the German Reichstag voted in the Enabling Act, allowing Hitler to rip up the constitution. He’d been in power less than two months.
The Reichstag Fire
Barely a month after Hitler’s appointment came the Reichstag Fire, started by 24-year-old Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch arsonist who may or may not have been a communist. Rumours persisted that it was the Nazis themselves that set the parliament building ablaze.
Either way, Hitler, who saw it as a “God-given signal”, made political capital of it, blaming the communists, having all political opponents rounded up and beaten, and put into ‘protective custody’. President Paul von Hindenburg (pictured with Hitler), increasingly senile, accepted Hitler’s request following the fire for a decree suspending all political and civil liberties as a ‘temporary’ measure for the ‘protection of the people and state’. These temporary measures were never revoked.
In March the last parliamentary elections took place. Only Hitler, it was claimed, could save Germany from the communists, and the SA, using violence and intimidation, silenced all other parties. The Nazis polled 44% of the vote, not enough for a majority but enough to squash any future political resistance.
The Enabling Act
The post of Chancellor was one that lasted four years before another election. But Hitler requested more than the prerequisite amount of time to deal with the nation’s problems. He proposed the Enabling Act in order to allow him greater time, and to dispense with the constitution and the electoral system. Constitutionally, Hitler needed a two-thirds majority to pass the act. Having bullied and threatened any potential opposition into silence, the Reichstag convened in the Berlin Opera House, its grand hall lined with Stormtroopers. Only the Socialist Democrats were brave enough to vote against the proposal but the Enabling Act was easily passed by 441 votes to 84.
There would be no more elections nor a constitution to keep Hitler in check. The Reichstag had, in effect, voted away its power.
Within a matter of weeks it had become illegal to criticise the government. A new secret police force was established, the Gestapo, which immediately began arresting ‘unreliable’ persons. Dachau, the first concentration camp which opened within weeks of the Nazis coming to power, catered for their custody. Trade unions were banned, freedom of the press curtailed, and all other political parties declared illegal, leaving only the Nazi party. Germany had become a one-party state with Hitler its dictator.
The first anti-Jew laws: ‘Non-citizens.’
With the Enabling Act in place, the first of over 400 anti-Jewish measures was introduced. Now classed as ‘Non-Aryans’, the Jews were banned from teaching, receiving a university education, working in the civil service, the media, military and from owning businesses. Books by Jewish authors were banned, including works by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The Jewish population suffered daily torment and anti-Semitic hysteria triggered a mass exodus of Jews from Germany. Of the half million Jews in Germany in 1933, about 320,000 had emigrated by 1939, amongst them Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. Many of those remained suffered during the state-sponsored pogrom unleashed by Joseph Goebbels on November 1938, an event remembered by the name Kristallnacht. Many emigrated to the USA but others chose Western or Eastern Europe where, once the war had broken out, they were soon caught in the Nazi war machine.
Fanatics, Hooligans and Eccentrics
The British Ambassador to Germany watched these developments with increasing alarm and, having seen Hitler rip up the constitution, wrote: “We are living in a country (Germany) where fanatics, hooligans and eccentrics have got the upper hand.”
Rupert’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.