From Republic to Reich: Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime exploited a terrorist assault on the Reichstag Building to carry out a pre-positioned strategy to convert the Weimar Republic into a police state. (In Light of the Past).
Better known as the "Enabling Act," the proposed legislation was designed to consolidate power in the hands of the chancellor and his cabinet in the event of a terrorist strike or similar threat to German national security. Since the 1918 Armistice that ended World War I, the German people had been battered by revolution, and their economy had been obliterated by depression and hyperinflation. While the Germans were desperate for leadership, they weren't willing to give their government absolute power -- yet.
Hitler and his squalid clique of criminals and degenerates understood that the public mood might be altered by a sudden, violent shock, giving the Nazi Party an opportunity to seize total power under the pretext of "Protecting the Fatherland." That shock came less than a month after Hitler's first cabinet meeting, when, on February 27th, flames consumed a large section of Germany's Reichstag (parliament) Building. The fire was the result of an arson attack -- either by a Communist saboteur (as the Nazis claimed) or by a Nazi provocateur (to provide the excuse Hitler needed to put his program into action). Before the smoke had cleared, Hitler had already presented President Paul von Hindenburg with a draft executive order for protecting "the People and the State." Described as a "defensive measure against Communist acts of violence," the decree announced that in light of the terrorist attack on the Reichstag, "restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of th e Press; on the rights of assembly and association; violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications; warrants for house searches; orders for confiscation as well as restrictions on property, are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."
In his memoir Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner -- a German lawyer who fled to England in 1938 -- recalls that the presidential decree "abolished freedom of speech and confidentiality of the mail and telephone for all private individuals, while giving the police unrestricted rights of search and access, confiscation and arrest. That afternoon [of the day after the decree was issued] men with ladders went around, covering campaign posters with plain white paper. All parties of the left had been prohibited from any further election publicity. Those newspapers that still appeared reported all this in a fawning, fervently patriotic, jubilant tone. We had been saved! What good luck! Germany was free! Next Saturday all Germans would come together in a festival of national exaltation, their hearts swelling with gratitude! Get the torches and flags out!"
But even after the initial decree, Haffner records, there was no visible "sign of revolution" -- at least, not yet. "The law courts sat and heard cases," he recalls. "At home, people were a little confused, a little anxious, and tried to understand what was happening." Haffner himself was among those relatively few Germans who understood the implications of President Hindenburg's decree. "I consider it a personal insult that I should be prevented from reading whichever newspaper I wish, because allegedly a Communist set light to the Reichstag," he complained to a fellow lawyer. "Don't you?" "No. Why should I?" replied Haffner's injudicious friend.
Besides Haffner, few Germans understood that the Nazis were using the terrorist strike as a steppingstone to total power. "Armed with these all-embracing powers, Hitler and Goering were in a position to take any action they pleased against their opponents," observed historian Alan Bullock in his 1953 book Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.
Following the Plan
But the presidential decree was merely an overture. Hitler and his party were determined to see their pre-positioned agenda for "Fatherland security" adopted. Following a speech by Hitler on March 23, 1933, about two months after the Reichstag fire, the German Parliament -- unnerved by the public concern about a possible Communist terror campaign, and intimidated by mobs of Nazi stormtroopers -- passed Hitler's Enabling Act. "Its five brief paragraphs took the power of legislation, including control of the Reich budget, approval of treaties with foreign states and the initiating of constitutional amendments, away from Parliament and handed it over to the Reich cabinet for a period of four years," wrote historian William Shirer in his study The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. While the Enabling Act explicitly permitted the Reich cabinet to enact laws that "might deviate from the constitution," it also specified that the powers of Parliament would be protected.
In his speech, Hitler promised that his government "will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying Out vitally necessary measures." This was a lie, of course. Between 1933 and 1937, as Hitler's party consolidated control over Germany, the Reichstag would pass only four laws, including the three Nuremberg Laws that imposed the regime's odious racialist and anti-Semitic doctrines. On July 14, 1933, Hitler's cabinet enacted a law criminalizing all parties except the Nazi Party; by December of that year, all but 20 representatives in the Reichstag belonged to the Nazi Party. All of this was perfectly legal under the open-ended grant of power given to Hitler through the Enabling Act.
"Hitler's dictatorship rested on the constitutional foundation of [that] single law," observed Bullock. "No National or Constitutional Assembly was called and the Weimar Constitution was never formally abrogated.... What Hitler aimed at was arbitrary power. It took time to achieve this, but from the first he had no intention of having his hands tied by a constitution...." Unlike previous German chancellors, who had "been dependent on the President's power to issue emergency decrees under article 48 of the constitution ... Hitler had that right for himself, with full power to set aside the constitution."
Abolishing the States
In his March 23rd address to the Reichstag, Hitler sought to placate those worried that the confederated German states (laender) would be absorbed into a centralized dictatorship: "The separate existence of the federal states will not be done away with." The Weimar Constitution recognized and protected the sovereign powers of the various German laender. Each of the laender had separate elected assemblies, as well as independent police and judicial institutions.
Devoted to the modern political dogma called totalitarianism, Hitler condemned the confederated Weimar Republic and openly announced his intention to abolish it in favor of a centralized regime. "National Socialism, as a matter of principle, must claim the right to enforce its doctrines without regard to present federal boundaries, upon the entire German nation," he wrote in his 1925 manifesto Mein Kampf. Once Hitler had absorbed the legislative powers of the German Reichstag, he and his cohorts targeted the laender for abolition as well, using decrees that -- like the text of the Enabling Act -- had been prepared well in advance of the Nazi Party's rise to power.
Even before the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, Hitler and Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick moved to dissolve the state governments. Their first priority was to centralize control over the police. Acting under the emergency decree issued the day after the Reichstag fire, Frick appointed Reich police commissars in Baden, Wurttemberg, and Saxony. Herman Goering, Prussian Minister of the Interior, was already bringing that critical region's police to heel.
While centralizing control over the police, the Nazi leadership liquidated the political leadership of the separate states. A week after passage of the Enabling Act, Hitler and Frick dissolved the diets (elected assemblies) of German states not already under Nazi control. A week after that Hitler nominated Reichstatthalter (Reich governors) over all German states; those officials had the power to rule by decree. The Reich governors "are not the administrators of the separate states, they execute the will of the supreme leadership of the Reich," Hitler later explained. "They do not represent the states over against the Reich, but the Reich over against the states.... National Socialism has as its historic task to create the new Reich and not to preserve the German states."
Hitler's cabinet fulfilled that "historic task" with passage of the "Law for Reconstruction of the Reich" on January 31, 1934. The Reconstruction Law abolished the popular assemblies of the separate German states and decreed that "the sovereign powers of the laender are transferred to the Reich." The states' residual powers were eliminated with the abolition of the Reichsrat (Reich Council) -- roughly equivalent to the original U.S. Senate -- on February 14th.
The decentralized republic had now become a consolidated Reich, and Hitler's criminal oligarchy faced no opposition as it conducted its totalitarian campaign of Gleichschaltung -- "coordination" of all areas of German life under Nazi Party control. This would require creating an apparatus to terrorize Germans into submission, as well as to identify and punish dissidents -- a police state.
Nazifying the Courts
With parliament securely in the hands of the Nazi Party and the powers of the independent states being assimilated, Hitler's cabal turned its attention on the judicial branch. Frustrated by Supreme Court verdicts that acquitted three of the four defendants accused of the assault on the Reichstag Building, the Nazis started to create Sondergerichte -- special tribunals controlled by the Party that answered to the Fuhrer. The most notorious of these tribunals was the Volksgerichthof or "People's Court," also known as the "Blood Tribunal" because of the red robes worn by its judges.
Created by an April 24, 1934 decree, the tribunal was composed of "five members, not bound by legal technicalities ... appointed by the Chancellor," noted Frederick L. Schuman's 1935 book The Nazi Dictatorship. "Only the presiding officer and one judge would be regular judicial officials. The other three might be chosen from among persons 'with special experience in fighting off attacks directed against the State'" -- a provision ensuring a majority faithful to the National Socialist Party. Additional decrees from Hitler's cabinet created remarkably elastic standards of "treason" used to criminalize criticism of the Nazi Party line. Those arraigned before the "Blood Tribunal" and other special tribunals had no right of appeal.
The Nazi regime also undertook a campaign to bend the nation's court systems to the Fuhrer's will. Prior to fleeing Germany, Haffner worked as a Referendar, a law clerk and apprentice judge. He witnessed the Nazification of Germany's court system from the inside while working in Germany's Supreme Court, in 1933. One of the Nazi Party's most effective tactics was to condemn strict constructionists of the Weimar Constitution, and insist that it be treated as a "living" document.
To justify unconstitutional actions taken by Hitler's government, Haffner writes, Nazi officials "produced unheard-of points of law in a fresh, confident voice. We Referendars, who had just passed our exams, exchanged [puzzled] looks...." Nazi judges would insist that "the paragraphs of the law must yield precedence" and that "the meaning was more important than the letter of the law."
Through a combination of threats, cajolery, and simple persistence, the Nazis wore down the resistance of the court that had once defied Frederick the Great by upholding a property claim made by a poor man who owned a windmill Frederick sought to remove. At the same time, the Nazis sought to bring the rising generation of Referendars under the Party's control through the Association of National Socialist Lawyers. Haffner recalls that one day in 1933, after expressing a modest criticism of the regime, one of his colleagues warned him: "Skeptical comments are no use nowadays. You're only digging your own grave. Don't fancy that there's anything to be done against the fascists now! Certainly not by open opposition.... We republicans must how] with the wolves."
Forging the Gestapo
The Nazi wolf pack was led through careful planning, rather than simple predatory instinct. In March 1932, little less than a year before Hitler was appointed chancellor, a small group of Nazi leaders assembled at the Munich apartment of Ernst Roehm, the Brownshirts' militant homosexual leader. Among those at the gathering were Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels, and Rudolf Hess. Even prior to acquiring political power, the Nazi conspirators plotted the creation of a Geheim Staats Polizei, or "secret state police," which would pervert law enforcement into a tool intended to protect the Nazi elite and carry out its totalitarian designs.
"The [March 1932] meeting had been arranged by Roehm, who had been advised by Hitler that Goebbels would state the plans for the constitution of the new secret police," wrote Philip St. C. Walton-Kerr in his 1939 book Gestapo. "At this meeting, and at one which was also held at Roehm's apartment on the following evening, the constitution of the Gestapo was finally settled, and its activities divided into two parts, one devoted to affairs inside Germany, the other concerned with work outside the country." Himmler was put in charge of the new department, which "would not, of course, be able to operate fully until the government was in Hitler's hands."
In early 1933, as the Nazi cabinet consolidated political control, "Himmler incorporated in the Geheim Staats Polizei not only the existing State police departments, but also all the relevant bureaus of the Ministry of the Interior and that of Foreign Affairs," observed Walton-Kerr. Over the next few years, the Gestapo penetrated "into every branch of the national life ... by an army of spies, operating in every walk of life and among every class of people.... Brother was set to spy on brother, wives on their husbands; bus conductors listened to and reported on passengers, postmen observed correspondence, friendly strangers in the cafes acted as agents provocateurs; school teachers questioned children, while selected children would trap their teachers. Employers [were required to] render secret reports on workmen, while being themselves subject to espionage by their secretaries, who in turn were being observed by planted office boys. Men and women everywhere had to walk warily, and give information quickly... ."
"The principal weapon of the Gestapo was never to be force, for that would be supplied by the Brownshirts -- it would be Fear," Walton-Kerr continued. "Fear planted in the hearts of every man, woman, and child; fear of the sudden loss of possessions and even liberty, of being torn away from home and relatives and friends; fear of the unknown and unexpected, of intimate friends no less than of strangers."
Himmler's power consolidation was completed on June 16, 1936, when "for the first time in German history, a unified police was established for the whole of the Reich ... and Himmler was put in charge as Chief of the German police," wrote left-leaning historian William Shirer. "This was tantamount to putting the police in the hands of the S.S. [Schutzstaffel, or Black-shirts].... The Third Reich, as is inevitable in the development of all totalitarian dictatorships, had become a police state."
The S.S. gained ascendancy in 1934 due to its use in purging Roehm's Sturmabteilung (SA) or Brownshirts, the gathered scum of Germany's revolutionary underworld. During the Nazi rise to power, the Brownshirts served as revolutionary goads by providing "pressure from below" in the form of wanton criminal violence and terror. Although the Nazis posed as defenders of Germany from the Communist menace, they eagerly welcomed their supposed mortal enemies into the Nazi Party. Roehm boasted that he could transform the "reddest Communist" into a faithful National Socialist within a month. Historian Robert G. Waite notes that these so-called "Beefsteak Nazis" -- Brown outside, Red inside - "were particularly effective in the Gestapo and the SA [Brownshirts], where they formed perhaps a third of the total membership."
The Brownshirts terrified the German public, and repelled conservative elements of the German elite whom Hitler needed to placate. The Wehrmacht, in particular, was hostile to Hitler's party because of the prevalence of perversion in the Brownshirts (and throughout the Nazi Party at large). General Walter von Brachitsch expressed the sentiments of a majority of his fellow officers when he referred to the Nazis as a "gang of homosexuals, thugs, and drunks." Furthermore, Roehm represented an abiding threat to Hitler's pre-eminence. Consequently, liquidating the Brownshirts was tactically sound from Hitler's perspective.
Thus in June 1934, Hitler accused Roehm of plotting a "second revolution" against the Nazi State, and unleashed the Blackshirts to liquidate Roehm and his cadres (as well as several prominent conservative politicians). This purge, known as the "Night of Long Knives," was authorized after the fact by a one-sentence law issued over Hitler's signature: "The measures taken on June 30 and July 1 and 2 to strike down the treasonous attacks are justifiable acts of self-defense by the state."
Acting in the name of "self-defense by the state," the Nazi regime used civilian disarmament laws passed under the Weimar Republic to disarm its potential opposition. "The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms," Hitler pointed out. "History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing."
In 1920, as Communist insurrections and nationalist counter-insurgencies raged across Germany, the Weimar government passed the "Law on the Disarmament of the People," which banned civilian possession of "military-style weapons." Through a 1928 law, the Weimar Republic made anti-gun laws uniform throughout all German states, a violation of the federalist principles then in place.
The 1928 Weimar gun law made all civilian gun ownership "subject to police approval," observed constitutional scholar Stephen Halbrook in the Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law. "This firearms control law was quite useful to the new government that came to power a half decade later." In fact, it wasn't until March 1938 -- a full five years after Hitler's appointment as chancellor -- that the Nazis bothered to enact a gun law; the improvident measures adopted by the liberal Weimar Republic were more than adequate to the needs of Hitler's regime.
On November 9, 1938, the twentieth anniversary of the Weimar Republic's founding, the Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht ("Night of cc Broken Glass") -- an anti-Jewish riot conducted by mobs organized and controlled by the Party. Following that rampage, German Jews were disarmed and taken into "protective" custody -- and the tragic end of that story is well known. A year later, the London Times noticed that Germany still displayed the occasional tremors of opposition to the Nazi regime, but lamented that under Hitler, "Civilians are disarmed, and [therefore] powerless...."
Ratifying the Reich
Long before the London Times published that lament, the Nazis had consolidated political power. On August 2, 1934, six weeks after the purge, President Hindenburg died. On the same day, recounts Bullock, "the officers and men of the German Army took the oath of allegiance ... not to the Constitution, or to the Fatherland, but to Hitler personally": "I swear by God this holy oath -- I will render unconditional obedience to the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready, as a brave soldier, to stake my life at any time for this oath."
In a national plebiscite held 17 days later, the German public was also asked to pledge absolute obedience by approving the consolidation of the offices of president and chancellor. "By every appeal known to skillful politicians and with every argument to the contrary suppressed, [the Germans] were asked to make their approval unanimous," reported New York Times correspondent Frederick T. Birchall in a report published on August 20th. Nearly 90 percent of the German population approved "Chancellor Hitler's assumption of greater power than has ever been possessed by any other ruler in modern times."
The ascent of the Nazi Party, it must be recognized, was accomplished through carefully organized deception and facilitated by Germany's moral collapse. As late as 1930, Haffner recalled, Hitler and his co-conspirators were regarded as an embarrassment.
Common Germans considered Hitler to be "thoroughly repellent -- the pimp's forelock, the hoodlum's elegance ... the interminable speechifying, the epileptic behavior with its wild gesticulations and foaming at the mouth, and the alternately shifty and staring eyes.... No one would have been surprised if a policeman had taken him by the scruff of the neck in the middle of his first speech and removed him to some place from which he would never have emerged again, and where he doubtless belonged."
Within a few short years, after hyperinflation and rampant moral decadence had ravaged Germany's national character, Hitler was successfully repackaged as a "respectable" defender of the middle class. But much of Germany's middle class never fully embraced the Fuhrer. Many among the dispirited German public, weary of war and terror and desperate for stability, ratified the Nazi dictatorship, and its attendant police state, on the assumption that its fearful powers would never be directed against them personally. One ballot noted by Birchall, signed by a person identifying himself as "Non-Aryan," contained the notation: "Since nothing has happened to me so far I vote 'Yes.'"
In those words of witless acquiescence to tyranny can be found a suitable epitaph for every free society that has succumbed to the institutionalized terror of a police state.