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.
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.”
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.”
- 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?
- What would ordinary Germans have witnessed in the days after the Reichstag fire? What range of responses might have been possible for them?
- 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?
- 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?
- How do people act in times of fear and crisis? What sorts of choices are they likely to make?