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From Republic to Reich: Adolf Hitler's Nazi

regime exploited a terrorist assault on the
Reichstag Building to carry out a pre-
positioned strategy to convert the Weimar
Republic into a police state
New American, The , Oct 7, 2002
by William Norman Grigg
It had taken nearly 15 years, but Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party
had finally clawed its way to power. On January 30, 1933, Reichschancellor Hitler solemnly
swore an oath to uphold the Weimar Republic's constitution. Hours later he convened his first
cabinet meeting to plot the republic's overthrow. The first item on that meeting's agenda dealt
with what could be called "Fatherland security." Hitler and his cohorts examined a legislative
draft entitled Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich -- "Law for Removing the
Distress of People and Reich."

Better known as the "Enabling Act," the proposed legislation was designed to consolidate power
in the hands of the chancellor and his cabinet in the event of a terrorist strike or similar threat to
German national security. Since the 1918 Armistice that ended World War I, the German people
had been battered by revolution, and their economy had been obliterated by depression and
hyperinflation. While the Germans were desperate for leadership, they weren't willing to give
their government absolute power -- yet.

Hitler and his squalid clique of criminals and degenerates understood that the public mood might
be altered by a sudden, violent shock, giving the Nazi Party an opportunity to seize total power
under the pretext of "Protecting the Fatherland." That shock came less than a month after Hitler's
first cabinet meeting, when, on February 27th, flames consumed a large section of Germany's
Reichstag (parliament) Building. The fire was the result of an arson attack -- either by a
Communist saboteur (as the Nazis claimed) or by a Nazi provocateur (to provide the excuse
Hitler needed to put his program into action). Before the smoke had cleared, Hitler had already
presented President Paul von Hindenburg with a draft executive order for protecting "the People
and the State." Described as a "defensive measure against Communist acts of violence," the
decree announced that in light of the terrorist attack on the Reichstag, "restrictions on personal
liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the Press; on the rights of
assembly and association; violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic
communications; warrants for house searches; orders for confiscation as well as restrictions on
property, are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."

In his memoir Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner -- a German lawyer who fled to England in
1938 -- recalls that the presidential decree "abolished freedom of speech and confidentiality of
the mail and telephone for all private individuals, while giving the police unrestricted rights of
search and access, confiscation and arrest. That afternoon [of the day after the decree was issued]
men with ladders went around, covering campaign posters with plain white paper. All parties of
the left had been prohibited from any further election publicity. Those newspapers that still
appeared reported all this in a fawning, fervently patriotic, jubilant tone. We had been saved!
What good luck! Germany was free! Next Saturday all Germans would come together in a
festival of national exaltation, their hearts swelling with gratitude! Get the torches and flags out!"

But even after the initial decree, Haffner records, there was no visible "sign of revolution" -- at
least, not yet. "The law courts sat and heard cases," he recalls. "At home, people were a little
confused, a little anxious, and tried to understand what was happening." Haffner himself was
among those relatively few Germans who understood the implications of President Hindenburg's
decree. "I consider it a personal insult that I should be prevented from reading whichever
newspaper I wish, because allegedly a Communist set light to the Reichstag," he complained to a
fellow lawyer. "Don't you?" "No. Why should I?" replied Haffner's injudicious friend.

Besides Haffner, few Germans understood that the Nazis were using the terrorist strike as a
steppingstone to total power. "Armed with these all-embracing powers, Hitler and Goering were
in a position to take any action they pleased against their opponents," observed historian Alan
Bullock in his 1953 book Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.

Following the Plan

But the presidential decree was merely an overture. Hitler and his party were determined to see
their pre-positioned agenda for "Fatherland security" adopted. Following a speech by Hitler on
March 23, 1933, about two months after the Reichstag fire, the German Parliament -- unnerved
by the public concern about a possible Communist terror campaign, and intimidated by mobs of
Nazi stormtroopers -- passed Hitler's Enabling Act. "Its five brief paragraphs took the power of
legislation, including control of the Reich budget, approval of treaties with foreign states and the
initiating of constitutional amendments, away from Parliament and handed it over to the Reich
cabinet for a period of four years," wrote historian William Shirer in his study The Rise and Fall
of the Third Reich. While the Enabling Act explicitly permitted the Reich cabinet to enact laws
that "might deviate from the constitution," it also specified that the powers of Parliament would
be protected.

In his speech, Hitler promised that his government "will make use of these powers only insofar
as they are essential for carrying Out vitally necessary measures." This was a lie, of course.
Between 1933 and 1937, as Hitler's party consolidated control over Germany, the Reichstag
would pass only four laws, including the three Nuremberg Laws that imposed the regime's
odious racialist and anti-Semitic doctrines. On July 14, 1933, Hitler's cabinet enacted a law
criminalizing all parties except the Nazi Party; by December of that year, all but 20
representatives in the Reichstag belonged to the Nazi Party. All of this was perfectly legal under
the open-ended grant of power given to Hitler through the Enabling Act.

"Hitler's dictatorship rested on the constitutional foundation of [that] single law," observed
Bullock. "No National or Constitutional Assembly was called and the Weimar Constitution was
never formally abrogated.... What Hitler aimed at was arbitrary power. It took time to achieve
this, but from the first he had no intention of having his hands tied by a constitution...." Unlike
previous German chancellors, who had "been dependent on the President's power to issue
emergency decrees under article 48 of the constitution ... Hitler had that right for himself, with
full power to set aside the constitution."

Abolishing the States

In his March 23rd address to the Reichstag, Hitler sought to placate those worried that the
confederated German states (laender) would be absorbed into a centralized dictatorship: "The
separate existence of the federal states will not be done away with." The Weimar Constitution
recognized and protected the sovereign powers of the various German laender. Each of the
laender had separate elected assemblies, as well as independent police and judicial institutions.

Devoted to the modern political dogma called totalitarianism, Hitler condemned the confederated
Weimar Republic and openly announced his intention to abolish it in favor of a centralized
regime. "National Socialism, as a matter of principle, must claim the right to enforce its doctrines
without regard to present federal boundaries, upon the entire German nation," he wrote in his
1925 manifesto Mein Kampf. Once Hitler had absorbed the legislative powers of the German
Reichstag, he and his cohorts targeted the laender for abolition as well, using decrees that -- like
the text of the Enabling Act -- had been prepared well in advance of the Nazi Party's rise to

Even before the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, Hitler and Minister of the Interior Wilhelm
Frick moved to dissolve the state governments. Their first priority was to centralize control over
the police. Acting under the emergency decree issued the day after the Reichstag fire, Frick
appointed Reich police commissars in Baden, Wurttemberg, and Saxony. Herman Goering,
Prussian Minister of the Interior, was already bringing that critical region's police to heel.

While centralizing control over the police, the Nazi leadership liquidated the political leadership
of the separate states. A week after passage of the Enabling Act, Hitler and Frick dissolved the
diets (elected assemblies) of German states not already under Nazi control. A week after that
Hitler nominated Reichstatthalter (Reich governors) over all German states; those officials had
the power to rule by decree. The Reich governors "are not the administrators of the separate
states, they execute the will of the supreme leadership of the Reich," Hitler later explained.
"They do not represent the states over against the Reich, but the Reich over against the states....
National Socialism has as its historic task to create the new Reich and not to preserve the
German states."

Hitler's cabinet fulfilled that "historic task" with passage of the "Law for Reconstruction of the
Reich" on January 31, 1934. The Reconstruction Law abolished the popular assemblies of the
separate German states and decreed that "the sovereign powers of the laender are transferred to
the Reich." The states' residual powers were eliminated with the abolition of the Reichsrat (Reich
Council) -- roughly equivalent to the original U.S. Senate -- on February 14th.

The decentralized republic had now become a consolidated Reich, and Hitler's criminal oligarchy
faced no opposition as it conducted its totalitarian campaign of Gleichschaltung -- "coordination"
of all areas of German life under Nazi Party control. This would require creating an apparatus to
terrorize Germans into submission, as well as to identify and punish dissidents -- a police state.

Nazifying the Courts

With parliament securely in the hands of the Nazi Party and the powers of the independent states
being assimilated, Hitler's cabal turned its attention on the judicial branch. Frustrated by
Supreme Court verdicts that acquitted three of the four defendants accused of the assault on the
Reichstag Building, the Nazis started to create Sondergerichte -- special tribunals controlled by
the Party that answered to the Fuhrer. The most notorious of these tribunals was the
Volksgerichthof or "People's Court," also known as the "Blood Tribunal" because of the red
robes worn by its judges.

Created by an April 24, 1934 decree, the tribunal was composed of "five members, not bound by
legal technicalities ... appointed by the Chancellor," noted Frederick L. Schuman's 1935 book
The Nazi Dictatorship. "Only the presiding officer and one judge would be regular judicial
officials. The other three might be chosen from among persons 'with special experience in
fighting off attacks directed against the State'" -- a provision ensuring a majority faithful to the
National Socialist Party. Additional decrees from Hitler's cabinet created remarkably elastic
standards of "treason" used to criminalize criticism of the Nazi Party line. Those arraigned before
the "Blood Tribunal" and other special tribunals had no right of appeal.

The Nazi regime also undertook a campaign to bend the nation's court systems to the Fuhrer's
will. Prior to fleeing Germany, Haffner worked as a Referendar, a law clerk and apprentice
judge. He witnessed the Nazification of Germany's court system from the inside while working
in Germany's Supreme Court, in 1933. One of the Nazi Party's most effective tactics was to
condemn strict constructionists of the Weimar Constitution, and insist that it be treated as a
"living" document.

To justify unconstitutional actions taken by Hitler's government, Haffner writes, Nazi officials
"produced unheard-of points of law in a fresh, confident voice. We Referendars, who had just
passed our exams, exchanged [puzzled] looks...." Nazi judges would insist that "the paragraphs
of the law must yield precedence" and that "the meaning was more important than the letter of
the law."

Through a combination of threats, cajolery, and simple persistence, the Nazis wore down the
resistance of the court that had once defied Frederick the Great by upholding a property claim
made by a poor man who owned a windmill Frederick sought to remove. At the same time, the
Nazis sought to bring the rising generation of Referendars under the Party's control through the
Association of National Socialist Lawyers. Haffner recalls that one day in 1933, after expressing
a modest criticism of the regime, one of his colleagues warned him: "Skeptical comments are no
use nowadays. You're only digging your own grave. Don't fancy that there's anything to be done
against the fascists now! Certainly not by open opposition.... We republicans must howl with the

Forging the Gestapo

The Nazi wolf pack was led through careful planning, rather than simple predatory instinct. In
March 1932, little less than a year before Hitler was appointed chancellor, a small group of Nazi
leaders assembled at the Munich apartment of Ernst Roehm, the Brownshirts' militant
homosexual leader. Among those at the gathering were Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels, and
Rudolf Hess. Even prior to acquiring political power, the Nazi conspirators plotted the creation
of a Geheim Staats Polizei, or "secret state police," which would pervert law enforcement into a
tool intended to protect the Nazi elite and carry out its totalitarian designs.

"The [March 1932] meeting had been arranged by Roehm, who had been advised by Hitler that
Goebbels would state the plans for the constitution of the new secret police," wrote Philip St. C.
Walton-Kerr in his 1939 book Gestapo. "At this meeting, and at one which was also held at
Roehm's apartment on the following evening, the constitution of the Gestapo was finally settled,
and its activities divided into two parts, one devoted to affairs inside Germany, the other
concerned with work outside the country." Himmler was put in charge of the new department,
which "would not, of course, be able to operate fully until the government was in Hitler's hands."

In early 1933, as the Nazi cabinet consolidated political control, "Himmler incorporated in the
Geheim Staats Polizei not only the existing State police departments, but also all the relevant
bureaus of the Ministry of the Interior and that of Foreign Affairs," observed Walton-Kerr. Over
the next few years, the Gestapo penetrated "into every branch of the national life ... by an army
of spies, operating in every walk of life and among every class of people.... Brother was set to
spy on brother, wives on their husbands; bus conductors listened to and reported on passengers,
postmen observed correspondence, friendly strangers in the cafes acted as agents provocateurs;
school teachers questioned children, while selected children would trap their teachers. Employers
[were required to] render secret reports on workmen, while being themselves subject to
espionage by their secretaries, who in turn were being observed by planted office boys. Men and
women everywhere had to walk warily, and give information quickly... ."

"The principal weapon of the Gestapo was never to be force, for that would be supplied by the
Brownshirts -- it would be Fear," Walton-Kerr continued. "Fear planted in the hearts of every
man, woman, and child; fear of the sudden loss of possessions and even liberty, of being torn
away from home and relatives and friends; fear of the unknown and unexpected, of intimate
friends no less than of strangers."

Himmler's power consolidation was completed on June 16, 1936, when "for the first time in
German history, a unified police was established for the whole of the Reich ... and Himmler was
put in charge as Chief of the German police," wrote left-leaning historian William Shirer. "This
was tantamount to putting the police in the hands of the S.S. [Schutzstaffel, or Black-shirts]....
The Third Reich, as is inevitable in the development of all totalitarian dictatorships, had become
a police state."

The S.S. gained ascendancy in 1934 due to its use in purging Roehm's Sturmabteilung (SA) or
Brownshirts, the gathered scum of Germany's revolutionary underworld. During the Nazi rise to
power, the Brownshirts served as revolutionary goads by providing "pressure from below" in the
form of wanton criminal violence and terror. Although the Nazis posed as defenders of Germany
from the Communist menace, they eagerly welcomed their supposed mortal enemies into the
Nazi Party. Roehm boasted that he could transform the "reddest Communist" into a faithful
National Socialist within a month. Historian Robert G. Waite notes that these so-called
"Beefsteak Nazis" -- Brown outside, Red inside - "were particularly effective in the Gestapo and
the SA [Brownshirts], where they formed perhaps a third of the total membership."

The Brownshirts terrified the German public, and repelled conservative elements of the German
elite whom Hitler needed to placate. The Wehrmacht, in particular, was hostile to Hitler's party
because of the prevalence of perversion in the Brownshirts (and throughout the Nazi Party at
large). General Walter von Brachitsch expressed the sentiments of a majority of his fellow
officers when he referred to the Nazis as a "gang of homosexuals, thugs, and drunks."
Furthermore, Roehm represented an abiding threat to Hitler's pre-eminence. Consequently,
liquidating the Brownshirts was tactically sound from Hitler's perspective.

Thus in June 1934, Hitler accused Roehm of plotting a "second revolution" against the Nazi
State, and unleashed the Blackshirts to liquidate Roehm and his cadres (as well as several
prominent conservative politicians). This purge, known as the "Night of Long Knives," was
authorized after the fact by a one-sentence law issued over Hitler's signature: "The measures
taken on June 30 and July 1 and 2 to strike down the treasonous attacks are justifiable acts of
self-defense by the state."

Gun Grab

Acting in the name of "self-defense by the state," the Nazi regime used civilian disarmament
laws passed under the Weimar Republic to disarm its potential opposition. "The most foolish
mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms," Hitler
pointed out. "History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry
arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing."

In 1920, as Communist insurrections and nationalist counter-insurgencies raged across Germany,

the Weimar government passed the "Law on the Disarmament of the People," which banned
civilian possession of "military-style weapons." Through a 1928 law, the Weimar Republic made
anti-gun laws uniform throughout all German states, a violation of the federalist principles then
in place.

The 1928 Weimar gun law made all civilian gun ownership "subject to police approval,"
observed constitutional scholar Stephen Halbrook in the Arizona Journal of International and
Comparative Law. "This firearms control law was quite useful to the new government that came
to power a half decade later." In fact, it wasn't until March 1938 -- a full five years after Hitler's
appointment as chancellor -- that the Nazis bothered to enact a gun law; the improvident
measures adopted by the liberal Weimar Republic were more than adequate to the needs of
Hitler's regime.

On November 9, 1938, the twentieth anniversary of the Weimar Republic's founding, the Nazis
unleashed Kristallnacht ("Night of cc Broken Glass") -- an anti-Jewish riot conducted by mobs
organized and controlled by the Party. Following that rampage, German Jews were disarmed and
taken into "protective" custody -- and the tragic end of that story is well known. A year later, the
London Times noticed that Germany still displayed the occasional tremors of opposition to the
Nazi regime, but lamented that under Hitler, "Civilians are disarmed, and [therefore]

Ratifying the Reich

Long before the London Times published that lament, the Nazis had consolidated political
power. On August 2, 1934, six weeks after the purge, President Hindenburg died. On the same
day, recounts Bullock, "the officers and men of the German Army took the oath of allegiance ...
not to the Constitution, or to the Fatherland, but to Hitler personally": "I swear by God this holy
oath -- I will render unconditional obedience to the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people,
Adolf Hitler, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready, as a brave
soldier, to stake my life at any time for this oath."

In a national plebiscite held 17 days later, the German public was also asked to pledge absolute
obedience by approving the consolidation of the offices of president and chancellor. "By every
appeal known to skillful politicians and with every argument to the contrary suppressed, [the
Germans] were asked to make their approval unanimous," reported New York Times
correspondent Frederick T. Birchall in a report published on August 20th. Nearly 90 percent of
the German population approved "Chancellor Hitler's assumption of greater power than has ever
been possessed by any other ruler in modern times."

The ascent of the Nazi Party, it must be recognized, was accomplished through carefully
organized deception and facilitated by Germany's moral collapse. As late as 1930, Haffner
recalled, Hitler and his co-conspirators were regarded as an embarrassment.

Common Germans considered Hitler to be "thoroughly repellent -- the pimp's forelock, the
hoodlum's elegance ... the interminable speechifying, the epileptic behavior with its wild
gesticulations and foaming at the mouth, and the alternately shifty and staring eyes.... No one
would have been surprised if a policeman had taken him by the scruff of the neck in the middle
of his first speech and removed him to some place from which he would never have emerged
again, and where he doubtless belonged."

Within a few short years, after hyperinflation and rampant moral decadence had ravaged
Germany's national character, Hitler was successfully repackaged as a "respectable" defender of
the middle class. But much of Germany's middle class never fully embraced the Fuhrer. Many
among the dispirited German public, weary of war and terror and desperate for stability, ratified
the Nazi dictatorship, and its attendant police state, on the assumption that its fearful powers
would never be directed against them personally. One ballot noted by Birchall, signed by a
person identifying himself as "Non-Aryan," contained the notation: "Since nothing has happened
to me so far I vote 'Yes.'"

In those words of witless acquiescence to tyranny can be found a suitable epitaph for every free
society that has succumbed to the institutionalized terror of a police state.

COPYRIGHT 2002 American Opinion Publishing, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning