One of the more depressing aspects of Nazi history is how the Nazi’s finally seized absolute control of Germany, it is depressing both because of what came after but also because of the dull, listless, bureaucratic methods used to consolidate power, crush civil liberties, and eventually dominate an entire nation. Hitler’s gaining of “mastery over Germany” is less an epic tale of insidious evil skulking into power, or a violent leader crushing those who oppose them, and reads more as a CEO undertaking a series of organizational restructures, policy updates, and operational modifications until high levels of control are focused mainly in the hands of that executive and his trusted inner cadre. Hitler’s rise to absolute control over Germany rested upon two specific initial bits of legal manipulation, the Reichstag Fire Decree 0f 1933 and the Enabling Act of 1933.
With the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, Germany’s parliament building, Hitler pressed the German President at the time, Hindenburg, to declare a state of emergency to control what Hitler claimed might be the start of a Communist insurrection which threatened the safety of the German state. Hindenburg obliged and the following declaration was issued:
Order of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and the State
On the basis of Article 48 paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the German Reich, the following is ordered in defense against Communist state-endangering acts of violence:
Articles 114, 115, 117, 188, 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 [habeas corpus], freedom of (opinion) expression, 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.
That’s the first part right there, a proclamation issued on 28 February 1933, all perfectly legal and all within the actual powers of Reich President Hindenburg. With it the Nazi’s went into overdrive, arresting Communists and Social Democrats as quickly as they could, including elected members of the German parliament. Communist party headquarters buildings were raided and those within arrested, Communist newspapers were shut down, and the Communist party in Germany as a political force was suppressed. This all took place just before a general election that had previously been scheduled for 5 March 1933. The Nazi’s did well, with their major competing political party shattered and unable to run candidates for office, but Hitler needed additional support in the Reichstag to pass his other piece of key law. He got that support from the German National People’s Party, who assisted in the passage of the Enabling Act of 1933.
Using the Kroll Opera House as its new meeting hall the Reichstag, newly assembled after the 5 March 1933 elections, heard a speech by Chancellor Adolph Hitler who demanded that the following act be passed:
Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich
The Reichstag has enacted the following law, which is hereby proclaimed with the assent of the Reichsrat, it having been established that the requirements for a constitutional amendment have been fulfilled:
In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, the laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the Constitution.
Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain undisturbed.
Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor and announced in the Reich Gazette. They shall take effect on the day following the announcement, unless they prescribe a different date. Articles 68 to 77 of the Constitution do not apply to laws enacted by the Reich government.
Treaties of the Reich with foreign states, which relate to matters of Reich legislation shall for the duration of the validity of these laws not require the consent of the Reichstag. The Reich government shall adopt the necessary legislation to implement these agreements.
The Social Democrats planned to try to block the law by not attending the meeting, and putting the Reichstag below the two-thirds quorum needed to pass law, but the Nazi’s, led by Reichstag President Herman Goring, changed the rules of procedure for the Reichstag meeting to declare any member who was “absent without excuse” would be counted as present. The Social Democrats then did attend, and voted against it, but the law passed.
With that, ended German democracy. The Reichstag still met regularly throughout the Nazi government’s rule of Germany but, oddly, Hitler declined to present any legislation to them, preferring to allow the Reich (Nazi) government to directly pass legislation.