The overwhelming majority of Germans and foreign observers (and of the Nazis themselves) were stunned speechless by how swiftly and seemingly effortlessly the latter (and personally Adolf Hitler) acquired essentially absolute power in Germany.
Not Adolf Hitler. He knew that few German (or foreign) politicians – and even Germans in general – took seriously his appointment as Chancellor on January 30th, 1933.
And they had every reason not to. Hitler’s predecessor – General der Infanterie Kurt von Schleicher – lasted for less than two months (from December 3rd 1932 – to January 28th, 1933).
Schleicher’s precursor Franz von Papen governed Germany for less than six months – from June 1st, 1932 till November 17th, 1932. The next Reichstag elections (the third in less than a year) were scheduled for March 5th and were expected to produce roughly the same results as the previous one (i.e. the continuation of political instability).
Hence, just about everyone expected Hitler to go the way of his predecessors – to last for a few months (without producing any noticeable impact on Germany) and sooner rather than later fade into political oblivion.
Only a miracle could prevent this from happening – a miracle that just about no one saw coming. No one but Adolf Hitler. And it did come – a week before the elections. Right when and where he needed it to happen.
On February 27th, 1933 shortly after 21:00, a Berlin fire station received an alarm call that the Reichstag building was on fire. By the time that police and firefighters arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies was engulfed in flames.
Hitler obviously read the criminal police investigation report that proved beyond the reasonable doubt that this crime of arson was committed by a lone perpetrator – one Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist and by that time already an experienced arsonist.
Which made perfect sense as no one in his right mind would even consider entering into an arson conspiracy (especially of such magnitude and impact as the Reichstag Fire) with the mentally unstable individual (who van der Lubbe obviously was).
But Hitler did not care. Reichstag Fire gave him the chance – his only chance – to acquire the absolute power in Germany – the power that he needed to save Germany from being conquered and destroyed by the Bolshevik hordes and to satisfy the needs of Germans who (albeit indirectly) made him the Chancellor of Germany.
So he wasted no time and immediately went to see Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg (at that time a far more powerful political figure in Germany than the Chancellor).
And convinced him that (a) the Reichstag Fire was the result of an international Communist conspiracy – after all, van der Lubbe was a member of a Dutch Communist Party; and (b) it was intended to be the signal for a bloody uprising and civil war.
More specifically that
“…large-scale pillaging in Berlin was planned for as early as four o’clock in the morning on Tuesday. It has been determined that starting today throughout Germany acts of terrorism were to begin against prominent individuals, against private property, against the lives and safety of the peaceful population, and general civil war was to be unleashed”
It was all a bunch of bull, of course (pardon my French), but Hitler did not care. Neither apparently, did Hindenburg. First, he had no love for Communists (to put and mildly) and second he was far more comfortable in a dictatorship and in a duumvirate (in 1916-18 he and Erich Ludendorff were essentially running Germany) than in a democratic republic (that he almost openly loathed).
So it did not take a lot of convincing to make him sign the Verordnung des Reichspräsidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat (Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State) on the very same day. Not surprisingly, this decree was immediately dubbed Reichstagsbrandverordnung – the Reichstag Fire Decree.
The very first article of the decree (which can be found in the Appendices) indefinitely suspended most of the civil liberties set forth in the Weimar Constitution (which both Hitler and Hindenburg wanted to do away with anyway), including habeas corpus (which essentially allowed to detain anyone without a court order for an indefinite period of time), freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the privacy of communications via the post and telephone.
It also allowed political police to conduct searches of residences (homes and apartments) of German citizens – and even restrictions and confiscation of property without a court order.
The next articles of the decree allowed the Reich government to assume powers normally reserved for the federal states (thus essentially transforming a federal republic into a centralized state).
And established draconian punishments (life in prison or even a death penalty) for certain political crimes: arson to public buildings (it was essentially applied retroactively to van der Lubbe); murder (or a conspiracy to commit murder) of President of Germany, or a member or a commissioner of the Reich government or of a state government; serious disturbance of the peace committed by an armed individual and a politically motivated kidnapping.
Powerful as it might have been, this decree was still not powerful enough for Adolf Hitler. To acquire essentially dictatorial powers in Germany (an absolute must for the Quantensprung and reengineering of Germany that he planned) he needed to get legislative power – the power to enact laws by a government decree without having to make Reichstag do it.
In other words, to assume the functions of his probably most-hated institution – the federal parliament – and thus essentially to do away with this “despicable entity”. For good.
He got this power less than a month later (which was, indeed, lightning-fast). It took some very brutal force (Hitler used the power of the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest Communist members of Reichstag essentially eliminating KPD as a political force) and some clever political negotiating, but on March 23rd – both the Reichstag proper and Reichsrat (upper chamber of the German parliament) passed by a required 2/3 majority the Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (“Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich”). Commonly known as the Enabling Act.
Thus essentially giving Adolf Hitler plenary powers in Germany – the complete and absolute power to take action on just about any issue, with no limitations or a judicial oversight or review.
Now he had the ultimate, total, complete and absolute power in Germany. And with that power immediately came the ultimate, total, complete and absolute responsibility.