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I. Building the Nazi Regime
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Overview   |   I. Building the Nazi Regime   |   II. The Nazi State   |   III. The SS and Police System   |   IV. Organized Resistance   |   V. Racial Politics   |   VI. The Military, Foreign Policy, and War   |   VII. Economy and Labor   |   VIII. Gender, Family, and Generations   |   IX. Religion   |   X. Literature, Art, and Music   |   XI. Propaganda and Public Reaction   |   XII. Region, City, and Countryside   |   XIII. Science

On the evening of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire. The alleged arsonist was Marinus van der Lubbe (1909-1934), a young Dutch Communist of questionable sanity; he was arrested on the spot and executed the following year. High Nazi officials immediately – and irrationally – interpreted the blaze as incontrovertible evidence of a Communist conspiracy to bring down the government. Victor Klemperer (1881-1960), then a professor in Dresden, responded to the incident in his famous diary: “I cannot imagine anyone really believes in Communist perpetrators instead of paid [Nazi swastika] work.” (2) A persuasive and detailed account of the evening’s events was eventually supplied by Rudolf Diels, who was head of the Prussian political police at the time. In his 1949 autobiography, Diels convincingly describes Marinus van der Lubbe as the lone arsonist (3). Among historians who have studied the evidence, there is now a general consensus that he alone was responsible for the blaze.

In response to the Reichstag fire, Wilhelm Frick drafted an emergency decree designed to give the government much broader police powers. With the issuance of the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State” of February 28, 1933, constitutionally protected free speech, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly and association, and the right to privacy in postal correspondence and telephone communication were suspended until further notice. House searches and property confiscations were made easier. The right to personal liberty was curtailed, and the government was permitted to imprison individuals, without trials, on a more-or-less legal basis. Finally, if an individual state government failed to take the appropriate measures to restore order and security, the Reich government could take over the state’s police force and internal administration and act directly. In addition to destroying civil liberties, this decree (also known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree”) obliterated what little remained of the old system of constitutional checks and balances that regulated the relationship between the national and state governments in Germany’s federal system. As with the “Decree for the Protection of the German People,” Hindenburg signed the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” thereby giving the Nazis another huge club to wield against their opponents. It turned out to be a long-lasting measure – the decree was never lifted during the twelve years of the Third Reich.

The elections of March 5, 1933, gave the Nazi Party an even larger plurality: 43.9 percent of the vote and 288 seats in the Reichstag. With their coalition partner, the German National People’s Party (nearly 8%), they now held a slim majority. But the Social Democrats (18.3%), the Communists (12.3%), and the (Catholic) Center Party (11.2%) had managed to hold onto most of their voters under the most adverse circumstances. Even with the aid of state-sponsored terror, intimidation, and propaganda, the Nazis were still unable to attain a parliamentary majority on their own.

(2) Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941: A Diary of the Nazi Years, translated by Martin Chalmers (New York: Modern Library, 1999), p. 5 (entry from March 10, 1933).
(3) Rudolf Diels, Lucifer ante portas: ... es spricht der erste Chef der Gestapo (Zurich: Interverlag, 1949), pp. 142-44.

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