In the aftermath of the Reichstag Fire, the scheduled election would be held in Germany. The results were surprising, but it did not prevent the Nazi leaders from moving forward with the next part of their plan, the Enabling Act.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 24 - The Third Reich Part 10 - The Enabling Act. In the days before the March 1933 German national elections tensions in Germany were high. After the Reichstag fire and the resulting Reichstag fire decree the official suppression of the German Communist party had begun and all over Germany the SA and the police would work together to arrest them by the thousands. The elections were critical to the plans of the government, and as a result for the future of Germany in one very specific way. As part of the initial discussions between Hitler, Papen, Hugenberg, and others within the government they had agreed that after the election they would put forward legislation which would seek to solve the political issues that Germany had been experiencing during the previous years. Now of course, when I say solve, that does not mean that they would be instituting reforms into the democratic systems of the Weimar republic, reforms aimed and ensuring that political deadlock was less of a possibility. They would instead seek to remove the democracy part of the Weimar constitution from the equation. These ideas would eventually become the Enabling act, which would give the government four years of essentially absolute power without any official powers of the Reichstag to intervene. In this episode we will discuss the March elections, the passage of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag, and then its immediate consequences.
The elections had been set shortly after the new government had been put in place. They were seen as a critical part of the plan to try and finally produce a government which would have the backing in the Reichstag to actually exist, that majority of support which had been so elusive in recent years. The elections were fully supported by all of the members of the coalition within the government, and all hoped that in their official position they would be able to help their party grow its support. They were also of course supported by Hindenburg who provided the order to dissolve the Reichstag once again. The elections were set for March 5th, which provided just over a month for campaigning activities. In many ways the Nazi campaign was similar to their previous efforts. All over Germany events, marches, and demonstrations would be held, and once again the message was saturated with anti-Socialist and anti-Communist rhetoric. Nazi speakers would discuss destroying the parties that were promoting class division and class antagonism in Germany, and they would claim that it was the Nazi party that had the ability to destroy the Weimar system which had done nothing but lie to the German people for the previous decade. At this point all of these talking points were pretty much par for the course when it came to Nazi political campaigns. However, there were also things that were very different with this new election, because the Nazi party was not some outside opposition party, they were a member of the government coalition, and this gave them some advantages. Breaking with previous norms, national radio and newspapers would be used to carry pro-government messages in the weeks before the election and all over Germany, even at a local level, the official structures of government would be co-opted into the campaign. The goal of all of these moves was to make it appear that the government, and the Nazi part specifically, were already in control of the nation, and that they were ready for the German people to support them in their crusade to mold Germany into the mighty nation they wanted.
The actions against the Left in the days before the election were really just a continuation and an amplification of what had occurred over the course of the previous month. In Prussia Goering had made it clear with the police what he expected them to do. Remember, by using his powers as the Minister of the Interior, he had already replaced many members of the Prussian government with those that were quite a bit more loyal to him. They were to collaborate with paramilitaries like the SA and the Stahlhelm, and they were not to be at all concerned about the use of force. Goering would go so far as to make it abundantly clear that policemen who used their firearms in the line of duty would be able to do so without any concern of official censure or punishment for the act. In the weeks before the election, those same paramilitary groups would be brought on as auxiliary police, and their ability to suppress those deemed to be enemies of the state would be increased. All of this made campaign actions in the last days before the election almost impossible for the oppositional parties, especially in the wake of the Reichstag Fire decree. There was really not much that these parties could do, other than I guess launch a revolution, an action that was never seriously considered and which would have been almost assuredly doomed to failure. Any active campaigning for the Communists especially were basically impossible during this period, which was obviously part of the reason that the actions were being taken in the first place.
The results of the elections were actually somewhat surprising, considering all of the events that had happened in the week before. The Bavarian People’s party would garner a million votes, the German National People’s Party led by Hugenberg and part of the cabinet would get 3.1 million, and the Center party 4.4 million. All three of these parties, respectively the 6th, 5th, and 4th largest in Germany represented little change from the previous election. The Communists, even in such an unfriendly environment, lost just a million votes, dropping from 5.9 million in November 1932 to 4.8 million, which was really a pretty good showing all things considered. The Communists had born the brunt of Nazi violence, and to come out of the elections with so much support even while the leadership of the party were being arrested and imprisoned shows something about the large base of support that the Communist party enjoyed, and its dedication. The Social Democrats would receive 7.1 million votes, a relatively modest decline. Finally the Nazi party would receive 17.2 million votes, an increase of 5.5 million. This was a sizeable increase that completely wiped away the decline that the party had experienced in November 1932. However, it did not provide the Nazi’s an outright majority with just under 44 percent of the Reichstag seats. More importantly the government coalition together could must just barely over a majority, with 288 seats for the Nazi party and 52 seats of the National People’s party giving them a majority of just 16 votes. This did mean that for the first time in 3 years the government would have a working majority in the Reichstag, but it still fell far below expectations. The Nazi party had been aiming for far more than just being able to barely eek out a majority. The amount of resources thrown into the election, and the power that the national and Prussian police had given to the government, still resulted in just barely over 50%. This provided them with the ability to run the government, but it fell far short of the two thirds majority that would be needed if the next step in the government’s plan was to be enacted.
After the results of the election were finalized, on March 21st the new Reichstag was made official. They could not complete the ceremony within the Reichstag building due to the damage that had been caused by the fire, and so instead it would be held at the garrison church in Potsdam. The church was at the center of the Prussian tradition, Frederick the First had built it, and both he and his son were buried within it. It provided the perfect location for the new government, which so often called back to these earlier days, Hindenburg would arrive in his uniform of a Prussian Field Marshal, and would perform the proper actions to open the Reichstag. The events would be called the Day of Potsdam, and Hitler would give a speech, a relative measures address with unity as its core theme. The entire event would be broadcast over national radio, to fully utilize its propaganda value. The first order of business after the Reichstag was officially in place was to pass the Enabling Act, or its official name, “Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich.” It would have only five rather short articles, but where it lacked in verbosity it more than made up for in its changes to the political structures of Germany. Article 1 would state “In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich” which would essentially give the government and the cabinet the ability to pass laws and other legislation of any kind without the Reichstag being involved. Article 2 “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.” and article 4 “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 legislative authorities. The Reich government shall enact the legislation necessary to implement these agreements.” The expiration for the law was set for April 1, 1937. The ramifications of these broad changes would prove to be massive. The ability to pass laws, even those that were not legal under the existing constitution gave the government incredible power.
While the contents of the Act were prepared and ready, there was a problem. Due to the content of the legislation, it needed a two thirds majority to pass. After the election the government coalition did not have enough votes to make this happen, even if they were joined by all of the deputies except those of the Communists and Social Democrats. Then Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick had a plan, part of the problem was that the Communist deputies were just too numerous, at 81 votes. However they could not attend any sessions of the Reichstag because of them were in prison, and others had went into hiding to avoid being arrested. Their absence provided an opportunity. Frick suggested that the Communist deputies simply be removed from the total number of seats, which would reduce the number of votes that were required to reach that 2/3rds ratio from 432 to 378. The actual rule that was created was that any deputy who was not present for a session would simply not be counted, not given the abstention vote which was the previous procedure. Once this solution was suggested, Goering made it clear that he was ready to remove as many Social Democrats as were necessary, planning to have them arrested. 26 Social Democrat deputies would already be added to the Communists as deputies who were not present due to imprisonment or fear for their safety. It should be noted that this change in the rules of the Reichstag was highly illegal, it was not permissible to change the rules without a two third majority, which they were enacting a rule to get around. Obviously the people pushing for the change were not too concerned about the legality of the move.
After the voting situation had been sorted out, the act was introduced on March 23, 1933. Hitler himself would introduce it to the Reichstag in their new home, the Kroll Opera House. The building would be surrounded by SA and SS members, and all of the Nazi delegation would be dressed in their brown SA uniforms. Hitler would give a speech, hitting many of his usual notes, he would begin with “In November 1918, the Marxist organizations seized the executive power by means of a Revolution. The monarchs were dethroned, the authorities of Reich and Länder removed from office, and thus a breach of the Constitution was committed. The success of the revolution in a material sense protected these criminals from the grips of justice. They sought moral justification by asserting that Germany or its government bore the guilt for the outbreak of the War.” and he would end by saying “All the more, however, the Government insists upon the passage of the bill. Either way, it is asking for a clear decision. It is offering the parties of the Reichstag the chance for a smooth development which might lead to the growth of an understanding in future. However, the Government is just as determined as it is prepared to accept a notice of rejection and thus a declaration of resistance. May you, Gentlemen, now choose for yourselves between peace or war!” The message was clear, passage was the only option. Otto Wels, the leader of the Social Democrats, and who would go into exile in June, would then speak in response, closing with “Any attempt to turn back the wheels of time will be in vain. We Social Democrats are aware that one cannot eliminate the realities of power politics by the simple act of legal protests. We see the reality of your present rule. But the people’s sense of justice also wields political power, and we will never stop appealing to this sense of justice. The Weimar Constitution is not a Socialist Constitution. But we adhere to the basic principles of a constitutional state, to the equality of rights, and the concept of social legislation anchored therein. We German Social Democrats solemnly pledge ourselves in this historic hour to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism. No Enabling Act can give you the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible. You yourself have professed your belief in Socialism. Bismarck’s Law against Socialists has not destroyed the Social Democratic Party. Even further persecution can be a source of new strength to the German Social Democratic Party. We hail those who are persecuted and in despair. We hail our friends in the Reich. Their steadfastness and loyalty are worthy of acclaim. The courage of their convictions, their unbroken faith - are the guarantees of a brighter future.” His defiant tone could not prevent the fact that the passage of the Enabling Act was assured, the Center party would join the government in the vote, bringing the final tally to 441 for and just 84 against. With its passage, democracy in Germany was essentially destroyed.
With the Enabling Act in place there were many possibilities for what the government could have done next. One of the primary actions of the government in the weeks and months that followed March 23rd was to begin to remove other political groups from their positions of power. Some of these were the opposition parties of the German left, but not all of them. For example in April 1933 Nazi attention would turn to the Stahlhelm, the right wing paramilitary groups made up of former soldiers who had for most of its existence supported the return of the German monarchy. On April 26th the leader of the Stahlhem Franz Seldte would officially join the Nazi party and bring the Stahlhelm with him into the party fold. He was provided with guarantees that the organization would always remain independent and autonomous. However, over the course of the next several months it would be slowly eroded as a political force. The organization was officially an organization for war veterans, and during this period a huge number of veterans would join the organization which reduced the ability of the most politically active members to lead the organization. Most troubling for the group’s future was that many of these new members were war veterans that had previously been members of the left-wing paramilitaries, like the Reichsbanner, and with those groups outlawed they had joined the Stahlhelm. This gave Hitler the perfect pretext to absorb the group into the SA at the end of May. The removal of the Stahlhelm as an independent organization was seen as important because it was the last remaining large paramilitary group within Germany that was not completely loyal to the Nazi leadership. With their forced absorption into the SA the last real paramilitary threat to the SA in Germany was removed, and the other parties on the Right, like the National People’s Party, were robbed of most of their previous power.
May would also see the Nazi leaders remove the labor unions as an avenue for possible problems. The unions had been a critical base of support for the Social Democrats in the previous years, and so there was a concerted effort to find a way to remove them from the equation. The first step was to hold a nationwide May Day celebration on May the 1st. On this day there were marches all over Germany to celebrate the German workers, with all of the events supported by the government and the Nazi party. Some of the unions would join in these celebrations willingly, which others saw as either cowardice or stupidity. Other workers were forced to participate, to the point where the SA members were going from house to house forcing factory workers into the streets. One of the reasons that the trade unions began to cooperate with the Nazi leaders was due to concerns about self preservation. With the events of the previous months it was obvious that the Social Democrat party was on the downward trend, especially after the harsh repression of the Communists. This led Theodor Leipart to try and work with the Nazi leaders to try and find some kind of accommodation which would allow the unions to continue to exist and function within the new regime. This would prove to be impossible. In the morning on May 2nd, all over Germany trade union offices were raided, union newspapers were shut down, and trade union funds were confiscated. Union leaders, including Leipart, were arrested and sent to concentration camps for interrogation. The unions that previously existed were dissolved and a new national union, under the control of Robert Ley the Nazi leader from Cologne, was created. However, even though this organization was called a labor union, it would prove to be just another instrument to remove as much power as possible from the workers. Just weeks later a law would be passed that removed the ability of workers to collectively bargain, and instead labor contracts would be negotiated by government appointed labor trustees. All of these changes would occur without any major strikes, demonstrations, or protests which would surprise many outside observers, and the Nazi leaders as well. It is a great example of how much the German unions, which were at one point just a few years earlier the most organized and powerful in Europe, had been robbed of most of their power both by the actions of Nazi violence, but also the lack of unity within the unions and the lack of action from their political allies.
With the trade unions out of the picture, their political supporters the Social Democrats were also targeted. During March and April the Reichsbanner, which had been created in answer to the SA and the Communists, was dissolved. This removed the ability of the party to defend itself in any way. Then on June 21st an order was sent out from the officer of the Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, which called for a ban of the Social Democrat party. This was done on the basis of the clauses found in the Reichstag fire decree, and Social Democratic members were not allowed to participate in government, even where they had been legally elected just months before. Included in this ban were members of the civil service, who also lost their jobs if they were a member of the Social Democrat party. Over 3,000 Social Democrat members would be arrested all over Germany on June 22nd alone, just adding to the many thousands of Communists and Social Democrats who had been detained in the previous months. Any party leaders who were not in custody fled, with many going to Prague and other spreading out over Europe. It was an anti-climactic end, but one that was an almost expected end, to what had once been the most powerful Social Democratic party in all of Europe, and one that led the largest labor movement in Western Europe. The party had fallen through its attempts to maintain the democratic and legal status quo as defined in the Weimar constitution, putting it into a position of compromise when so many other groups around them simply refused to do so. With its destruction the last real oppositional force to the government and the Nazi party was removed from the German political landscape.
With its enemies removed, the Nazi party now turned on those that it called its friends. When the new government had been created a critical part of the coalition had been the National People’s Party under the leadership of Alfred Hugenberg. If you remember, many people, both inside and outside Germany believed that the German Nationalists led by the People’s party had come out quite well in the new coalition. However, after March the Natiaonlists had experienced problem after problem, and they were constantly and consistently overruled and outsmarted by the Nazi members of the cabinet. They had eventually realized that they were simply unable to influence the course of the government even when they considered the course that it was taking to be illegal. Then on June 26th, Hugenberg was forced out of the cabinet, removing the last official impediment to full Nazi leadership. Shortly thereafter the party itself would dissolve. The other major party in Germany, the Center party, would not last much longer. The Center party had been able to maintain a solid base of support due to its position as the party of choice for Catholic Germans. Its support among the Catholic community was incredibly strong, and this allowed it to weather the political storms in Germany while remaining mostly intact. This would all change during the summer of 1933. The Catholic Church in Germany began to work with the Nazi leadership to try and come to some arrangement, and part of these discussions was the removal of Catholic church leaders from political activity. Now, the Center Party and the Church were not officially connected, but due to the role that Catholic members played in support of the party it had to follow the Church’s lead. The full text and implications of the Concordat signed between the government of Germany and the Catholic church is a discussion for a later date, but for our story right now it is enough to know that it was signed on July 1st, and it was the end of the Center Party in Germany, even if that end would take a few more days to finalize. With the support of the Catholic Church removed the Center party would vote itself into extinction on July 6th. The party’s nation, state, and local political leaders were told to resign or transfer to the Nazi party. With the end of the Center party, and all of the other major political parties in the Germany, the single party state was made official on July 14th. The law that was enacted on that date outlawed all political parties in Germany, except of course for the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. On that date the political conquest of Germany by the Nazi party was complete, less than 6 months after they officially entered the national government for the first time.