by William Waller
December 5, 2000
Fine, lean and interestingly timed recounting of Hitler’s terror-assisted rise. – Ed.
Living in a state of terror has to be experienced to be understood. Many of us who live in tough neighbourhoods worry when we go out of our houses but we usually feel safe enough inside. And we definitely do not have to worry about the door being broken down by the police or National Guard, provided we have done nothing wrong.
Too late, the ordinary German realized that the violence which before had been directed against ‘other’ people could now equally land on him, especially when he saw what Goering did in Prussia where he was the Minister of the Interior and controlled the police. He simply augmented the police numbers with 50,000 men of which 40,000 came from the SA and issued orders that no force was too great in apprehending the enemies of the State; at the time Prussia covered about two-thirds of Germany. No one could, therefore, rely on the law, and justice no longer existed.
In the Cabinet formed by Hitler, the President and the other parties as a result of the ‘hung’ election of November 1932, Hitler was Chancellor but the Nazis had only two more posts, out of a total of 11. One of them was given to Goering, who was named Minister without Portfolio; almost unnoticed, he became Prussia’s Interior Minister as well in the general share out of posts. The Nazis and the Nationalists held only 247 of the 583 seats in the Reichstag and so needed another coalition partner with at least 46 seats, to attain a majority. The Catholic Centre with 70 met the criterion but, Hitler was not after governing with others, he wanted dictatorial powers as he had forewarned. Relying on the lack of unity, or even the political will, of the other parties, Hitler set in motion the first of the 9 steps he would take in the next 52 days which would, finally, bring him absolute power.
Step 1 – In pretending to try to get a majority by making a coalition, Hitler met the Centre party head and then told the cabinet that he did not agree with the proposals Hitler made. Therefore, a government could not be formed and an election was needed. This decision was taken on day 1, 31st January, and the election set for 5th March.
Step 2 – All shades of political opinion were to be satisfied in the election campaign, no matter what lies and terrorism had to be used but the Communist party immediately came under fire and several leaders were arrested. Big business and the conservatives were invited to a meeting with Hitler on 20th February where they were categorically told that democracy and capitalism could not co-exist and that Hitler intended to eliminate the Communist Party completely. He also said that the Wehrmacht would be restored and strengthened, good news to any industry connected with arms which, along with all the others, would also benefit from having fewer labour problems.
Step 3 – The campaign was to be fought like a battle. The Nazis had unlimited government funds, and control of radio and many newspapers, and the plan was to provoke reactions from opposing parties, which the Nazis could then declare as being the start of a Bolshevik revolution. There were a reported 51 opposition politicians murdered during the campaign, plus unnumbered beatings and acts of savage intimidation, but the plan had to be abandoned for lack of any organized opposition.
Step 4 – This failure led to the decision to devise a symbolic act and to blame the Communists. It was probably concocted after the SA picked up a drunken, apparently half-witted Dutchman, who claimed to be a Communist and who had been heard to boast that he was going to set fire to various buildings. The Nazis chose the Reichstag for its political and historical significance and actually set the fire going in several places. They then ensured that the Dutchman was found wandering in the building. No one thought it odd that the first person to arrive at the fire was Goering, and then Goebbels and Hitler appeared, followed by the chief of the new Gestapo. Goering proclaimed that it was a Communist plot and the beginning of revolution. This was day 28, the 27th February.
Step 5 – The very next day Hitler went to Hindenburg full of the imagined revolution and persuaded him to sign a decree which, for the protection of the people and state, suspended 7 clauses in the constitution covering civil liberties and personal freedom. This decree alone was sufficient for Hitler to become absolute dictator but he wanted the power to come from the popular vote. Day 29.
Step 6 – The Communists were immediately outlawed and 4000 were arrested. Newspapers and journals of the centre were suspended and several Social Democrat members of parliament detained.. The SA were everywhere, breaking into houses, arresting, torturing and beating. The election campaign now became an exercise in brain-washing with huge rallies and parades, and posters everywhere. The people were warned of the consequences of supporting the Communists and were even promised written proof, which was never given, of their involvement in the Reichstag fire. All this went on until 4th March, day 33.
Step 7 – On day 34, the necessary election was held but, despite all the threats and the terror, it was still free and secret, and the people did make their feelings known but it was far too late. The Nazis, on their own, gained only 44% of the vote. With the Nationalist vote of 8%, the majority needed was assured, but this still did not satisfy Hitler. But the really striking fact was that 48% of Germans that day showed that they did not want Hitler or his ways. The Communists, though losing a million votes, still got nearly 5 million; the Catholic Centre even increased their vote from 4.25 to 5.5 million; and the Social Democrats lost a mere 70,000 votes. If only the politicians could have followed the people’s example.
Despite his wishes, Hitler was driven, finally, to trickery and deceit on a larger scale than on any previous occasion. He would have to get the members of the Reichstag to vote him the absolute power if the people would not.
Step 8 – The Reichstag would have to be asked to give up their power and pass an ‘enabling’ act which would hand the power to the Cabinet. A two-thirds majority would be needed but a good start would be that the 81 Communist seats would be vacant. Hitler was confident that the Catholics would vote for the act, especially after a spectacular piece of theatre designed to prove the sincerity of the Nazis in their wish to protect and preserve all that was German. It was announced that the opening of the new Reichstag would be held on 21st March in the Garrison Church at Potsdam. This church contained the very heart of the Prussian mystique. Frederick the Great was buried there and the Hohenzollern kings had worshipped there. The date had also been especially chosen as the anniversary of the day on which Bismarck had opened the first Reichstag of the Second Reich. Every bit of tradition was incorporated into the ceremonies and there was even an empty seat for the absent Kaiser Wilhelm II, in exile in Holland. President Hindenburg , in his short speech opening the parliament, expressed the hope that party strife would cease and a proud, free and united Germany would be established. Hitler replied that from the upheaval of the past few weeks, “the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated” and that Providence had place Hindenburg “over the new forces of our nation.” Whatever this might have meant, Hitler then stepped down from the podium and, bowing low before the President, shook him firmly by the hand. This scene was purposely photographed and the pictures distributed to newspapers all over Germany and to the rest of the world, and it alone can be held responsible for the change in attitude of many countries towards Hitler. In view of the fact that he knew that he would take away any vestige of power from the old man within a week, this act of apparent submission was the height of cynicism.
Step 9 – On day 52, 23rd March, the ‘Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich’ was the only business before the house. The whole power of parliament, making budgets, foreign treaties, amending the constitution was to be handed over to the Reich cabinet for 4 years. The Chancellor was to be authorized to draft laws that might be unconstitutional but no acts were to be passed that affected the Reichstag itself (how could they when the members had already, if they passed the act, immolated themselves!) and the powers of the President would be undisturbed. Hitler also spoke and promised that the rights of the federal states would remain, the rights of the churches would be respected, and that the powers conferred by the act would only be used for “vitally necessary measures”. Only 2 voices were heard against the act. The leader of the Catholic Centre party had demanded a promise, in writing, that the President’s right of veto would be preserved. This was agreed, but not given, before the voting. The other voice was from the leader of the Social Democrats, Otto Wells, a brave man in such an assembly where the aisles, and indeed the whole building, were filled with SA thugs. Using words such as humanity and justice he told Hitler that no one could give him “the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible.” As we would say now, Hitler lost his cool in front of the whole Reichstag and screamed some incoherent rubbish. The vote was quickly taken, giving 441 for and 84(Social Democrats) against.
The arrests of the Communists and several Social Democrat deputies were not legal, but everything else had been, if one could overlook the fact that the major factor for the individual member of the Reichstag was the use of terror. Constant physical or mental fear will lead people to do anything to get away from it, or to have it removed. Perhaps the Reichstag thought that they were buying themselves out of their responsibilities but it is more probable that the death of democracy was due to the sustained use of terror.
And the effects of that terror continued. It is not recorded that Hitler actually took Stalin’s Russia as his guide, but the two dictators established this method of government so that it is now practised world-wide to maintain even so-called benevolent dictatorships in power. Following the vote, the work that Hitler had done in previous years in establishing a complete hierarchy in the Nazi party enabled him to take over every state with the minimum of disruption, appointing Reich Governors with power to dismiss diets and local councils and appoint others, but all under the orders of the Reich Chancellor. By mid April the whole of Germany was controlled by Nazis.