After the elections of March 5, 1933, the Nazis began a systematic takeover
of the state governments throughout Germany, ending a centuries-old tradition
of local political independence. Armed SA and SS thugs barged into local
government offices using the state of emergency decree as a pretext to
throw out legitimate office holders and replace them with Nazi Reich commissioners.
Political enemies were arrested by the thousands and put in hastily
constructed holding pens. Old army barracks and abandoned factories were
used as prisons. Once inside, prisoners were subjected to military style
drills and harsh discipline. They were often beaten and sometimes even
tortured to death. This was the very beginning of the Nazi concentration
At this time, these early concentration camps were loosely organized
under the control of the SA and the rival SS. Many were little more than
barbed-wire stockades know as 'wild' concentration camps, set up by local
Gauleiters and SA leaders.
For Adolf Hitler, the goal of a legally established dictatorship was
now within reach. On March 15, 1933, a cabinet meeting was held during
which Hitler and Göring discussed how to obstruct what was left of
the democratic process to get an Enabling Act passed by the Reichstag.
This law would hand over the constitutional functions of the Reichstag
to Hitler, including the power to make laws, control the budget and approve
treaties with foreign governments.
The emergency decree signed by Hindenburg on February 28th, after the
Reichstag fire, made it easy for them to interfere with non-Nazi elected
representatives of the people by simply arresting them.
As Hitler plotted to bring democracy to an end in Germany, Propaganda
Minister Joseph Goebbels put together a brilliant public relations display
at the official opening of the newly elected Reichstag.
On March 21st, in the Garrison Church at Potsdam, the burial place of Frederick
the Great, an elaborate ceremony took place designed to ease public concern
over Hitler and his gangster-like new regime.
It was attended by President Hindenburg, foreign diplomats, the General
Staff and all the old guard going back to the days of the Kaiser. Dressed
in their handsome uniforms sprinkled with medals, they watched a most reverent
Adolf Hitler give a speech paying respect to Hindenburg and celebrating
the union of old Prussian military traditions and the new Nazi Reich. As
a symbol of this, the old Imperial flags would soon add swastikas.
Finishing his speech, Hitler walked over to Hindenburg and respectfully bowed
before him while taking hold of the old man's hand. The scene was recorded
on film and by press photographers from around the world. This was precisely
the impression Hitler and Goebbels wanted to give to the world, all the while
plotting to toss aside Hindenburg and the elected Reichstag.
Later that same day, Hindenburg signed two decrees put before him by
Hitler. The first offered full pardons to all Nazis currently in prison.
The prison doors sprang open and out came an assortment of Nazi thugs and
The second decree signed by the befuddled old man allowed for the arrest
of anyone suspected of maliciously criticizing the government and the Nazi
A third decree signed only by Hitler and Papen allowed for the establishment
of special courts to try political offenders. These courts were conducted
in the military style of a court-martial without a jury and usually with no
counsel for the defense.
On March 23rd, the newly elected Reichstag met in the Kroll Opera House
in Berlin to consider passing Hitler's Enabling Act. It was officially
called the "Law for Removing the Distress of the People and the Reich."
If passed, it would in effect vote democracy out of existence in Germany
and establish the legal dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.
Brown-shirted Nazi storm troopers swarmed over the fancy old building
in a show of force and as a visible threat. They stood outside, in the
hallways and even lined the aisles inside, glaring ominously at anyone
who might oppose Hitler's will.
Before the vote, Hitler made a speech in which he pledged to use 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," Hitler told the Reichstag.
He also promised an end to unemployment and pledged to promote peace
with France, Great Britain and Soviet Russia. But in order to do all
this, Hitler said, he first needed the Enabling Act. A two-thirds majority
was needed, since the law would actually alter the constitution. Hitler
needed 31 non-Nazi votes to pass it. He got those votes from the Catholic Center
Party after making a false promise to restore some basic rights already
taken away by decree.
Meanwhile, Nazi storm troopers chanted outside: "Full powers
– or else! We want the bill – or fire and murder!!"
But one man arose amid the overwhelming might. Otto Wells, leader of
the Social Democrats stood up and spoke quietly to Hitler.
"We German Social Democrats pledge ourselves solemnly in this historic
hour to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism.
No enabling act can give you power to destroy ideas which are eternal and
Hitler was enraged and jumped up to respond.
"You are no longer needed! The star of Germany will rise and
yours will sink! Your death knell has sounded!"
The vote was taken – 441 for, and only 84, the Social Democrats, against.
The Nazis leapt to their feet clapping, stamping and shouting, then broke
into the Nazi anthem, the Hörst Wessel song.
was ended. They had brought down the German Democratic Republic legally. From this day onward, the Reichstag would be just a sounding board,
a cheering section for Hitler's pronouncements.
Interestingly, the Nazi Party was now flooded with applications for
membership. These latecomers were cynically labeled by old time Nazis as
'March Violets.' In May, the Nazi Party froze membership. Many of those
kept out applied to the SA and the SS which were still accepting. However,
in early 1934, Heinrich Himmler would throw out 50,000 of those 'March
Violets' from the SS.
The Nazi Gleichschaltung now began, a massive coordination of all aspects
of life under the swastika and the absolute leadership of Adolf Hitler.
Under Hitler, the State, not the individual, was supreme.
From the moment of birth one existed to serve the State and obey the
dictates of the Führer. Those who disagreed were disposed of.
Many agreed. Bureaucrats, industrialists, even intellectual and literary
figures, including Gerhart Hauptmann, world renowned dramatist, were coming
out in open support of Hitler.
Many disagreed and left the country. A flood of the finest minds, including
over two thousand writers, scientists, and people in the arts poured out
of Germany and enriched other lands, mostly the United States. Among them
– writer Thomas Mann, director Fritz Lang, actress Marlene Dietrich, architect
Walter Gropius, musicians Otto Klemperer, Kurt Weill, Richard Tauber, psychologist
Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein, who was visiting California when Hitler
came to power and never returned to Germany.
In Germany, there were now constant Nazi rallies, parades, marches and
meetings amid the relentless propaganda of Goebbels and the omnipresent
swastika. For those who remained there was an odd mixture of fear and optimism
in the air.
Now, for the first time as dictator, Adolf Hitler turned his attention
to the driving force which had propelled him into politics in the first
place, his hatred of the Jews. It began with a simple boycott on April
1st, 1933, and would end years later in the greatest tragedy in all of human