A devastating blow was dealt to Germany’s fledgling and fragile democracy on 24 March 84 years ago. The German legislature voted away its power by supporting the Law to Remedy the Distress of the People Bill (Enabling Act). The law caused devastating distress. It gave the Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, unchecked power. He could pass laws without parliamentary approval, even if they were against the Constitution. The Enabling Act was the second nail in the coffin of German democracy.
The Nazis wanted its grab for power to be officially sanctioned and so needed the Reichstag’s (legislature) support. That’s why one of Hitler’s first actions after his ascension to the Chancellorship was to schedule elections for 5 March. The Nazis orchestrated the campaign’s tinderbox atmosphere. The fear of a Communist revolution was created. And Hitler was portrayed as the country’s saviour, the only person who could stop it.
Fire destroyed the Reichstag on Monday, 27 February, the week of the election. The Nazis blamed the Communists. A State of Emergency was declared the next day. Heavily armed security forces patrolled public buildings. Police patrolled trains, searching for “suspicious” people. “Brown shirt” storm troopers, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, patrolled the streets and instigated brawls. They broke up political meetings and beat up candidates and supporters.
The pressure on non-Nazi legislators was relentless, even on the day of the vote. The Reichstag session was held at the Kroll Opera House. Storm troopers were around the building on the day of the vote yelling: “Full powers – or else. We want the bill – or fire and murder”. Storm troopers lined the aisles where the vote would take place. A legislature’s chamber is hallowed ground. Imagine armed uniformed soldiers on the floor of the House of a Representatives in the US or Australia or the the House of Commons in the UK or Canada.
The legislation considered that March day was a constitutional change requiring a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag. The vote was 441 for, 84 against. Almost one in five Reichstag members – 122 of the 647 – was absent for what was arguably the chamber’s most important vote in its history. Twenty-six of the 120 SPD members were either in jail or hiding.
Of those there, the SPD members were the only ones who had the courage to oppose which contrasted with the cowardice of the Catholic Centre Party. The party’s members prevaricated until the day before the vote. Former Chancellor, dilettante, Franz von Papen, led government negotiations. Hitler became involved in the final days. The party agreed to support the Bill in return for guarantees of religious freedom. A letter confirming the agreement was promised.
Hitler didn’t deliver the letter. The Centre Party delivered the votes. The party’s leader, a priest, Ludwig Kaas, above, doubted Hitler’s word. Kaas reportedly said: “On the one hand we must preserve our soul, but on the other hand a rejection of the Enabling Act would result in unpleasant consequences for fraction and party. What is left is only to guard us against the worst. Were a two-thirds majority not obtained, the government’s plans would be carried through by other means.”
Perhaps the Nazis would’ve achieved what it wanted “by other means”. Perhaps the SPD thought that. But it didn’t accept the priest’s unprincipled position. Centre Party support for the Bill before the vote was not unanimous. Former Chancellors Heinrich Brüning and Joseph Wirth and former minister Adam Stegerwald did not support the party’s position but fell into line on the day of the vote. Thus, a Christian political party supported anti-Christian legislation.
The only speaker against the proposed Act was the SPD leader Otto Wells, above, despite:
- Two months of assault, imprisonment and intimidation of party supporters and members.
- The intimidating presence of storm troopers inside and outside the building on the day of the vote.
- His party outnumbered five to one.
Wells spoke in support of the rule of law, equal rights and social justice.
“In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism.”
Then he spoke directly to Hitler: “No Enabling Act gives you the power to destroy ideas that are eternal and indestructible. After all, you yourselves have professed your adherence to Socialism. The Socialist Law has not destroyed social democracy. German social democracy will draw new strength also from the latest persecutions.”
Hitler’s speech included many appeals to the Centre Party. Much of it from what the party asked in negotiations. The government would work for the “political purification of our public life”. There would be a “moral purging” of the body politic. The government wanted “an honest coexistence between Church and State”. It would fight against a “materialist view of the world”. A genuine community “equally serves both the interests of the German nation and the welfare of our Christian faith”.
Hitler pledged restraint. “The government will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures … The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one.”
The Upper House, the Reichsrat, unanimously passed the Bill on 24 March. It was signed into law by President Paul von Hindenburg later that day.
What it enabled
The Bill’s length was in direct disproportion to its impact. There were five articles:
- The government can make laws, including those affecting financial matters.
- Laws don’t have to comply with the Constitution, thus rendering it irrelevant.
- The Chancellor will announce laws in the government gazette.
- Treaties the government makes with other countries won’t need approval.
- The Act is effective from the day of its proclamation.
The Act rendered the Reichstag irrelevant. It was no longer originated or considered legislation. It met a few more times before the end of the Second World War for Hitler to make speeches about foreign policy mainly for international audiences.
The Enabling Act was initially adopted for four years but was extended in 1937, 1939 and 1943. It was the basis of all legislation throughout the Nazi dictatorship and abolished after the capitulation by Law No 1 of the Allied Control Council on 20 September 1945. The Enabling Act resulted in the:
- Criticism of the government becoming a crime.
- Banning of political parties, except the Nazis, on 14 July 1933.
- Establishment of a new ”state security” force, the Gestapo, on 26 April 1933. It immediately began arresting “unreliable” people. They were sent to Dachau, the first concentration camp that opened on 22 March 1933.
- Banning of trade unions.
- Further cutrailment of freedom of the press.
The first of more than 400 regulations and laws that persecuted Jews were enacted. Jews were first banned from:
- Going to university
- Working in the civil service, the media and military
- Owning businesses.
Books by Jewish authors were banned, thus some of the greatest intellectual contributions of the 20th century were prohibited . Authors included Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Germany’s population in 1933 was about 67 million of which less than 0.75 percent, 505,000, were Jewish. About 320,000 Jews emigrated by 1939, including Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. They were lucky.
Not long after the passing of the Enabling Act, Britain’s Ambassador to Germany, Sir Horace Rumbold, wrote: “We are living in a country (Germany) where fanatics, hooligans and eccentrics have got the upper hand.”