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.