How the Enabling Act paved the way for Nazi dictatorship

It is 86 years on Saturday since the Enabling Act paved the way for the Nazis to take control of Germany. Michael Stuchbery looks back on how the road to dictatorship can come about slowly but surely.

How the Enabling Act paved the way for Nazi dictatorship
Hitler in the Reichstag on May 4th, 1941. Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv/WikiCommons

Too often when presented with the idea of a dictatorship, we see it as the endgame of a bloody, prolonged struggle – the result of a coup, or revolution in the streets. The truth of the matter is that tyranny can easily come about by degrees, as a population gives in to fear.

The Enabling Act, the passing of which has its anniversary on the 23rd of this month, was the main instrument by which the Nazi Party assumed total, dictatorial control over the German state, following the election of 1933.

This piece of legislation, one of two enacted in the wake of the fire that devastated the Reichstag building in Berlin, on the 27th of February, 1933, effectively removed the power of the Reichstag to vote on new legislation, and gave almost complete power to Hitler and his cabinet.

What do I mean by complete power? Hitler could now make any decisions he wanted, as long as they didn’t interfere with the structures of governance itself – the Reichstag and Reichsrat.

With many civil rights having been suspended by the decree issued in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Nazi regime could now freely round up and imprison its enemies in camps such as Dachau, some of which were already under construction.

Laws restricting the employment of Jews and other groups could be quickly enacted, taking whole sectors by surprise, such as the those concerning educational facilities and newspapers. Although some spoke out against Hitler's move, without time for debate, opponents of the regime were constantly on the back foot, unable to establish any kind of firm opposition to the new government.

The SPD politician Otto Wels spoke out against Hitler's Enabling Act. Photo: DPA

Act did not raise concerns

To many Germans, especially those in the middle classes, the passage of the act did not raise many concerns – at least, not initially. The actions of the ruling Nazis gave the appearance of much more stable and effective government than that had preceded it.

It appeared as if the government was taking a firm line on the KPD, the German Communist Party, which had been presented as the main obstacle to peace and prosperity.

It was only in the months and weeks to come that many realized the full horror of what was happening, as friends and neighbours became targets of the government and thus, the SA that were appearing on streets in greater numbers.

It was only with the passage of a couple of years that many realized that they had lost their rights to express themselves freely, to make their own decisions – to even leave the country freely, if they so wished.

At a time in history when many seem to be choosing the easy notion of safety and security over defining qualities of democracy, it’s important to understand just how completely the Enabling Act transferred power to the Nazi regime, and robbed the German people of their voice.

It also reinforces the need to question and challenge that which we see presented in our media – are those we’re told to fear really the problem? Who benefits from fear? It’s never the marginalized or the outsider.

This weekend, as the anniversary of the Enabling Act passes, think on it as you observe current world affairs, such as the rise of far-right populism in Europe. Perhaps it is a stern warning of the way things could be heading.

SEE ALSO: ANALYSIS: Should Germany be worried about the far-right identity movement?

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.