Just a month after the Nazi led government was created, an event with lasting ramifications would occur.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 23 - The Third Reich Part 9 - The Reichstag Fire. On January 30th 1933 Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, capping of almost 8 years of political growth for the Nazi party. There had been rising political violence throughout Germany in previous years, but there was nothing violent about the moment that Hitler was named Chancellor. He had come to power in a way that was in many respects quite normal, his party had grown in support over time, making a coalition with the party more and more appealing to those with similar political views. Eventually, the party became large enough to not just be a participant in a coalition but instead to lead one. In this episode we will discuss what happened after January 30th 1933, and how the situation in Germany very rapidly shifted from a normal transition of government power into something very different. First we will look at the reactions of those within Germany, both Nazi political opponents and allies. In almost all cases those across the political landscape in Germany underestimated the wide ranging reforms that a Nazi-led government would put in place. The Left, Socialists and Communists alike, would see their ability to influence events both publicly and loudly destroyed. Those on the Right were mollified by promises of a destruction of Socialism in Germany, resolution of the political deadlock of the last several years, and a curtailment in the democratic structures of the Weimar constitution. They also believed that they would continue to influence events and retain their independence. We will then discuss the events of February 1933 as the new government began to assert itself and make changes. Finally, we will end this episode with the Reichstag fire, a critical event which gave the new government that which it so desperately wanted, an excuse, to begin an even greater suppression and destruction of the German Communist movement.
When discussing the reaction of those in Germany to the announcement of the new Hitler government, the first thing to discuss is the overall apathy for many Germans. For over 3 years the political maneuverings in Berlin seemed constant, with one government after another losing the support of the Reichstag, or never even gaining it in the first place. In the 12 months before January 1933 there had been multiple different governments, and multiple national elections to try and resolve the political deadlock. This caused many voters to believe that their votes would change little, and even for those who were engaged and interested in events the assumptions about the new political arrangements in Berlin would prove to be far from the reality. The general assumption was that Papen and the Right Wing parties that had joined in the coalition came out of the whole affair with a large advantage. For years they had been trying to bring the Nazis into the government, and they had finally succeeded, and they had even been able to leave the Nazis at a huge numerical disadvantage in the new cabinet. Everything seemed to go going according to plan. On the Left the reaction was somewhat limited. the Social Democrats did not really have a plan of action ready to go in such a situation. The Communists immediately began advocating for a general strike across Germany, an action that they would claim as the only way to ensure that the new government did not use its position to bring down yet more violence on the workers. The Communists did not have the numbers to make such a strike work without the assistance and support of the Social Democrats and the trade unions that would follow their lead. There was also some level of overconfidence within the Communist party, they believed that the new government could not possibly stay together over a long period of time, and that conflicts between the Nazis and the other parties would eventually be its undoing. This lulled the Communist leaders into a sense of security. This did not prevent the Communists from reaching out to the Social Democrats about a strike, and on January 31st there would be a meeting of national Social Democratic leaders and trade union representatives in Berlin to discuss the topic. They would eventually elect not to pursue a general strike. There were many reasons that they reached this conclusion, there were for example political concerns that too radical of an action might play into the hands of the Communist movement, resulting in another large shift in support away from the Social Democrats. There were also concerns about calling for such a large strike during the worst unemployment crisis the nation had seen in its short history. These two reasons, along with others, would result in the Social Democrats deciding to do, nothing. And so instead of uniting against a common enemy, the Social Democrats would fall into inactivity due at least partially out of fear of the Communists.
As other nations looked events in Germany, the transition of government did not appear to be greatly exceptional. Even if the assumption was made that Hitler might lead Germany into a period of dictatorship, even that was not greatly different than what had happened to many other nations during the interwar years. Italy, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, and Yugoslavia would all exit the First World War as democracies, but in the decades before 1933 they had either been removed and replaced by dictatorship or at the least they were very strongly trending in that direction. Due to its recent reputation as an aggressive nation, there were of course concerns from other European nations like France about the course of future events in Germany, but there would have been similar concerns regardless of who was leading Germany. For many external viewers, the evolution of the German government did not seem to necessarily cause any immediate alarm. Given the makeup of the government many foreign newspapers would claim that Hitler had put himself in a poor position, the New York Times would say “The composition of the cabinet leaves Herr Hitler no scope for gratification of any dictatorial ambition.” As with so many other events, it is only in retrospect that we can see how fraught with danger such a governmental change was.
While from a high level view outside observers did not see a huge shift in the direction for Germany, at the street level there were almost immediate differences. Only hours after Hitler was appointed Chancellor a torchlit march was held in Berlin on the evening of January 30th. Nazi newspapers would claim that 700,000 marchers joined the procession, although it is far more likely that the number was much lower, probably around 60,000. Among this number were SA and SS members, members of the Stahlhem, and just non-uniformed citizens who wished ot participate. The march would continue until midnight, and hours later Goebbels would write that “It is almost like a dream … a fairy tale … The new Reich has been born. Fourteen years of work have been crowned with victory. The German revolution has begun.” Hitler would address the nation for the first time as Chancellor on February 1st. His speed was very mild in terms of content, especially by his own standards, and by all accounts it was a speech much like what you would expect in such a situation with an emphasis on national unity, national greatness, and continued peace. In the background things began to shift immediately, a Reichstag dissolution as signed by Hindenburg and new elections were scheduled for March 5h. This was the first step in the Nazi plan to cement their power in a more permanent fashion. If they could gain a majority for the party, and then keep the coalition with the Right wing parties together, then an enabling act could be passed which would allow the government much greater power to control Germany and prevent so much of the partisan deadlock that had been so prevalent in Germany since 1930.
With just over a month before the elections, it did not take long for the new government to begin to move into action to ensure electoral victory. After the Communists had called for a general strike on January 31st, that strike that the Social Democrats did not join, the government would issue an emergency decree on February 2nd. This decree was justified under the idea that it would help protect the German people. It gave the government the ability to ban all public meetings, newspapers, and public relations activities that criticized the new government. Most importantly, it could be used to suppress Communist and Social Democrat campaign events during the upcoming election campaigns, and practically prevented them from printing out leaflets and other items. The power of the positions that had been selected by Hitler and the party would also very quickly become apparent. Almost immediately, in his new position as Prussian Minister of the Interior, Goering assumed direct control over all police forces in Prussia, which at this time made up over half of Germany. This meant that in Prussia, the police which had always been slightly biased against the Left, were now given official sanction. Along with this Goring began a massive removal of Prussian governmental officials that had Socialist, Communist, or liberal proclivities, or who were Jews. This rapidly began to shift the makeup of the Prussian government and the political power of the Nazi Party, which was represented by the number of positions within the government that were filled by party members. When the election campaigns began for the upcoming election, the violence again reached new levels. Right wing paramilitary groups, be they SA, SS, or Stahlhelm, would volunteer for a special auxiliary police force created by Goering. The public reason for this was that due to the Communist threat a large increase in the number of police was desperately needed, as the current manpower available simply was not sufficient. These new auxiliary formations would be used to suppress any political gatherings by the Communists and the Social Democrats, they would also arrest officials, shutter leftist newspapers, and raid party offices. At first this violence was primarily targeted against the Communists but as the month of February continued and the election grew ever closer, Social Democrat events also came under fire. The reaction from the Social Democrat party was to reduce the number of meetings that occurred in the hopes that this would reduce casualties. At the time they found it difficult to justify using illegal violence when they were trying to defend their ability to legally hold campaign events. On February 24th the Communist headquarters in Berlin at the Karl Liebknecht House was raided. Although most of the people and documents had already been removed as a precaution against such a raid Goring would claim that the police had found seditious material which made it clear that the Communists were preparing to overthrow the government. However, none of these documents were ever released to anybody to prove their existence. During all of this violence, it was not just the Nazis that were providing the impetus for the police to violently crackdown on the left, the other cabinet members, those from the more “moderate” right wing parties would make it clear that they supported the actions of the police, which removed any doubts about the correct course of action among much of the police force.
Actions against the Left were expected from a Hitler led government, in many ways they were required due to the role that the hatred and fear of the Left had played in the creation of the coalition which formed the new government. It was only one of the very few clear policy positions that the Nazi leadership had brought with them into the cabinet. However, there goals were much larger than simply reducing the influence of the Left, but to achieve them they needed to remain in power. One method to achieve this was at the voting box, but Hitler was already prepared to ignore a negative response from the voters. It had pretty much always been his plan that if the Nazis should achieve power, they would not allow any democratic developments to remove them from their leadership position. In October 1932 he had said in a public speech that “If we do one day achieve power, we will hold on to it, so help us God. We will not allow them to take it away from us again.” Then in February 1933 “It will not deter us should the German people abandon us in this hour. We will adhere to whatever is necessary to keep Germany from degenerating.” To make such a course a possibility Hitler needed help, and he hoped that he would be able to gain the support of the army to make it happen. Discussions with military leaders started on February 3rd when Hitler was invited to a meeting at the home of General Kurt Freiheer von Hammerstein-Equord. During the meeting he found receptive listeners. Nazi policies had always been aligned with those of the army leadership: support for rearmament, a reassertion of German military power on the world stage, and a rejection of the restrictions placed upon it by the Versailles treaty. What Hitler was asking was not that the army should get involved with the political battles around Germany, but instead that they should stay out of them entirely. This appealed to the military leaders and their ideas that the military was above politics, but it was clear to many that taking such a course would greatly favor Nazi plans, an outcome that many military leaders supported. For example, the Chief of the Ministerial Office in the War Ministry, Colonel Walther von Reichenau would say “It has to be recognized that we are in a revolution. What is rotten in the state has to go, and that can only happen through terror. The party will ruthlessly proceed against Marxism. Task of the armed forces: stand at ease. No support if those persecuted seek refuge with the troops.” The result of these February discussions was that Hitler would feel secure that as long as the government did not involve the army in internal policing actions against their political enemies, he did not need to be concerned about them preventing Nazi plans.
During February the most important event that would occur on the night of February 27th, when the Reichstag caught on fire. This was important, for reasons that will soon become apparent, but first we have to discuss why the fire occurred and more importantly how did it begin. The official story released by the government was that the fire was started by a young Dutch construction worker who had previously belonged to the Dutch Communist Party named Marinus van der Lubbe. He had been working his way across Europe with the intention of eventually arriving in the Soviet Union. However, when he arrived in Berlin in mid-February he would go no further. The story goes that after arriving in Germany he was deeply troubled by the plight of the German worker, and with his belief in direct action he hoped that by doing something massive, like torching the Reichstag he could be an inspiration to the German proletariat. He believed that they had lost hope in their ability to alter the course of the suffering that they were experiencing from the tyrannical German government and with his action they would see that they could successfully resist their capitalist oppressors. There would be some doubt in the veracity to the claim that van der Lubbe was responsible for the fire, and that he set the Reichstag ablaze by himself. It seemed unlikely that a newly arrived foreigner, with few connections in the city and with little knowledge of the interior of the Reichstag could successfully cause the fire. The Communists would quickly deny that they had any involvement in the incident, and they instead claimed that it was the Nazis themselves that had set the fire, framing van der Lubbe with the use of his known ties to Communism, and his past history of arson. The theory that the Nazis themselves set the fire would be the second major theory on the event. This theory claims that the Nazis did this to take advantage of the ability to use it as an excuse for further actions against the Communists. If this was the case it was likely that the access that various Nazi officials had to the Reichstag had made it far easier to start the fire. There was for example an underground passage linking Goering office and the Reichstag building, it was completely possible that a group of arsonists could have used this access to set the fire and then to exit the scene before anybody knew what was happening. If you are wondering which of these theories is true and whether it was a solo act by van der Lubbe or an act by the Nazi party, I have some bad news for you. This is one of many events that we will discuss on the podcast where I cannot give you a perfectly clear answer. van der Lubbe seems to be the most likely suspect, and was almost certainly involved in some way, but it is essentially impossible to rule out Nazi involvement given some of the circumstantial evidence that would come to light in the later decades. A definitive answer is unlikely to ever be uncovered, because most of those that would have been involved on the Nazi side would be killed in the years that followed, or in the war of course. We do know that Goering was the first high level Nazi official on the scene, and that van der Lubbe would be quickly arrested, found guilty of setting the fire, and executed.
The immediate fear among Nazi leaders was the possibility of a Communist revolt against the government. The earlier raid on the Karl Liebknecht house had intensified already existing concerns that such an events was a possibility, and so they sprung into action. Hitler would tell Goring to do anything he felt necessary to protect the government from the Communists and so just hours after the fire had started orders went out to police to start arresting all Communist political representatives. This included no just national delegates in the Reichstag, but also in state and local governments. The police were also ordered to start searching houses of known Communists. They used lists that had already been prepared in the preceding months, designed specifically for such a situation. They would break into houses all over Berlin and Germany, arrest Communist sympathizers, and throw them into cars and vans and drive off. Thousands were arrested during the night, before the rest of Germany even really knew what was happening. Just to reiterate, there was no evidence of any planned Communist action at this point, and there was also no evidence linking the Communist party to the events at the Reichstag.
The next morning the cabinet would meet in an emergency session. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the official government response to the previous night’s events. The outcome would be a decree crafted by Wilhelm Frick that would use the powers of the Presidential decree which would get the title “Order of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State.” I won’t read the entire decree, but here are some of the most crucial pieces. First up the Preamble “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:” Then Article 1 “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 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.” Article 2 “If any state fails to take the necessary measures to restore public safety and order, the Reich government may temporarily take over the powers of the highest state authority.” Article 5 “The crimes which under the Criminal Code are punishable with life in a penitentiary are to be punished with death…” The combination of new restrictions and the removal of certain personal rights essentially destroyed the personal liberties that were in the Weimar constitution. There were discussions among the cabinet, with some of the members hesitant to agree to some of the wording. However, Hitler would remind them that one of the reasons that the coalition had been created was to destroy the Communists, and this was the means to accomplish that goal. It would also allow the government to go after individual members of the Communist Party, or any other groups that the government found necessary which side stepped any possible problems with directly outlawing a large political party. Hitler would swear that the suspension of civil rights would be temporary, of course he did not given an end date, in this case “temporary” would mean until 1945. Eventually the cabinet agreed to have Hindenburg sign the decree and it would go into effect on February 28, 1933. Whatever restraints still existed on the SA were removed after the decree went into effect, they began to openly carry loaded firearms and began patrolling the streets. The arrests that had started after the fire continued, membership in the Communist party after January 30 1933 was considered an act of treason. There was a public promise that the documents that proved that the Communists were actively planning to overthrow the government would be made available to the public, but this was never actually followed through on. For other Germans, especially the middle class voters, the new decree was welcomed as a way to solve the violence that had been plaguing Germany for years. The Communists were widely considered a threat to public order and represented a threat to personal safety, the fact that the destruction of almost all personal liberties could have disastrous consequences was not properly taking into account. Don’t forget, all of this was happening just days before a national election, an election that we will discuss next episode.