While the Nazis were focusing on putting Germans back to work in the midst of the Great Depression, they also unleashed attacks on their political opposition as soon as Hitler became chancellor. On the evening of February 27, 1933, alarms suddenly rang out in the Reichstag as fire destroyed the building’s main chamber. Within 20 minutes, Hitler was on the scene to declare: “This is a God-given signal! If this fire, as I believe, turns out to be the handiwork of Communists, then there is nothing that shall stop us now from crushing out this murderous pest with an iron fist.”1

Marinus van der Lubbe was the man the Nazis captured that night. He confessed to setting the building ablaze but repeatedly insisted that he had acted alone. Adolf Hitler paid no attention to the confession. He saw a chance to get rid of what he considered the Nazis’ most immediate rival—the Communists—so he ordered the arrest of anyone with ties to the Communist Party. Within days, the Nazis had thrown 4,000 Communists and their leaders into hastily created prisons and concentration camps. By the end of March, 20,000 Communists had been arrested, and by the end of that summer more than 100,000 Communists, Social Democrats, union officials, and other “radicals” were imprisoned.2 Were any of them responsible for the fire? The question was irrelevant to the Nazis. They had been given an opportunity to get rid of their enemies, and they took it.

 

After the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933, Hitler ordered the arrest of anyone with ties to the Communist Party. By the end of March, approximately 20,000 people had been arrested.

The day after the fire, February 28, 1933, President Hindenburg, at Hitler’s urging, issued two emergency decrees designed to make such arrests legal, even those that had already taken place. Their titles—“For the Defense of Nation and State” and “To Combat Treason against the German Nation and Treasonable Activities”—reveal how Hitler used the fire to further his own goals. The two decrees suspended, until further notice, every part of the constitution that protected personal freedoms. The Nazis claimed that the decrees were necessary to protect the nation from the “Communist menace.”

On March 5, 1933, the government held an election for control of the Reichstag. The Nazis won 288 seats (43.9% of the vote). The Communists won 81 seats (12.3%), even though their representatives were unable to claim those seats—if they appeared in public, they faced immediate arrest. Other opposition parties also won significant numbers of seats. The Social Democrats captured 119 seats (18.3%), and the Catholic Center Party won 73 seats (11.2%). Together, the Communist, Social Democratic, and Catholic Center Parties won nearly as many seats as the Nazis. But their members distrusted one another almost as much as they feared the Nazis. As a result, these parties were unable to mount a unified opposition to the Nazi Party.

Germans look on as the Reichstag building burns on February 27, 1933.

Still under Nazi control, the Reichstag passed a new law on March 21, 1933, that made it a crime to speak out against the new government or criticize its leaders. Known as the Malicious Practices Act, the law made even the smallest expression of dissent a crime. Those who were accused of “gossiping” or “making fun” of government officials could be arrested and sent to prison or a concentration camp.

Then, on March 24, 1933, the Reichstag passed what became known as the Enabling Act by a vote of 141 to 94. It “enabled” the chancellor of Germany to punish anyone he considered an “enemy of the state.” The act allowed “laws passed by the government” to override the constitution. Only the 94 Social Democrats voted against the law. Most of the other deputies who opposed it were in hiding, in prison, or in exile.

That same day, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, then police commissioner for the city of Munich, held a news conference to announce the opening of the first concentration camp near Dachau, Germany. According to Himmler, the camp would have the capacity to hold 5,000 people, including Communist Party members and Social Democrats “who threaten the security of the state.” Himmler continued, according to a newspaper report:

On Wednesday, 22 March, the concentration camp at the former gunpowder factory received its first allocation of 200 inmates. . . . The occupancy of the camp will gradually increase to 2,500 men and will possibly be expanded to 5,000 men later. A labor service detachment recently prepared the barrack for the first 200 men and secured it for the time being with a barrier of triple barbed-wire. The first job of the camp inmates will be to restore the other stone buildings, which are very run-down. . . . The guard unit will initially consist of a contingent of 100 state police, which are to be further reinforced by SA [storm trooper] auxiliary police guards. . . . No visits are allowed at the Concentration Camp in Dachau.3

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1933, the Nazis used the new laws to frighten and intimidate Germans. By May, they forced all trade labor unions to dissolve. Instead, workers could only belong to a Nazi-approved union called the German Labor Front.

Then, in June, Hitler outlawed the Social Democratic Party. The German Nationalist Party, which was part of Hitler’s coalition government, dissolved after its deputies were told to resign or become the next target. By the end of the month, German concentration camps held 27,000 people. By mid-July, the Nazi Party was the only political party allowed in the country. Other organizations were also brought into line. As historian William Sheridan Allen has put it, “Whenever two or three were gathered, the Führer would also be present.”4

Not everyone accepted the changes. Amid uncertainty about the future of the country under Nazi rule, thousands of Germans, including 63,000 Jews, fled the country. Most who left ended up in neighboring countries. The rest of the nation’s 60 million people stayed, by choice or necessity, and adapted to life in the “new Germany.”

Citations

  • 1 : D. Sefton Delmer, London Daily Express, February 28, 1933.
  • 2 : Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York: Penguin, 2005), 11.
  • 3 : “The Former Gunpowder Factory in Dachau a Concentration Camp for Political Prisoners,” trans. Sally Winkle, in The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts, ed. Roderick Stackelberg and Sally A. Winkle (London: Routledge, 2002), 145.
  • 4 : William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930–1935 (New York: Franklin Watts, 1973), 214.

Connection Questions

  1. Make a timeline of the important steps described in this reading that show Germany’s change from a democracy to a dictatorship. Which action by the Nazis do you think was most damaging to democracy in Germany? Why? 
  2. What would ordinary Germans have witnessed in the days after the Reichstag fire? What range of responses might have been possible for them?
  3. Rumors spread among some Germans in 1933 that the Nazis had set the Reichstag fire themselves. While this is difficult to confirm, some historians today believe that the evidence supports those rumors. If the Nazis set the fire, how would it change your interpretation of the Reichstag fire and the events that followed?
  4. What were the results of the national election on March 5, 1933? What opportunities seemed to exist after the election for other political parties to counter the Nazis? Why were the Nazis’ opponents unable to seize those opportunities?
  5. How do people act in times of fear and crisis? What sorts of choices are they likely to make?

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