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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

March 23, 1933 - The Day Democracy Died

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

The Wall Street crash of 1929 was the final straw that broke the back of Germany’s first democracy.

Postage stamp issued to commemorate the first fully democratic National Assembly in Germany

The fledgling Weimar Republic, which had emerged from chaotic aftermath of the First World War, faced an uphill battle for survival. And yet, despite punitive war reparations imposed by the

Treaty of Versailles, crippling inflation and a general suspicion of democracy among the population, it managed to limp along through the 1920s. With eight general elections over the 13 years between 1919 and 1932, however, it never achieved anything approaching stability.

The stock market crash threw the world economy into a tailspin, and Germany was no exception. American loans dried up, banks and businesses were shut down and by the early 1930s the number of unemployed reached 6 million. The frustration and despair that the situation engendered among the German people played right into the hands of right-wing extremists like Adolf Hitler. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer describes how Hitler viewed the desperate conditions in his country:

The misery of the German people, their lives still scarred by disastrous experience of the collapse of the mark less than ten years before, did not arouse his compassion. On the contrary, in the darkest days of that period, when the factories were silent, when the registered unemployed numbered over six million and bread lines stretched for blocks in every city in the land, he could write in the Nazi press: ”Never in my life have I been so well disposed and inwardly contented as in these days. For hard reality has opened the eyes of millions of Germans to the unprecedented swindles, lies and betrayals of the Marxist deceivers of the people.” The suffering of his fellow Germans was not something to waste time sympathizing with, but rather to transform, cold-bloodedly and immediately, into political support for his own ambitions.

It worked. In the general election of May 1928, the Nazis won only 2.6 percent of the popular vote. Just four years later, in July 1932, they catapulted into power with over 37 percent of the vote. The popularity of Hitler and his party was reaffirmed in March of the following year when another election brought their support up to 44 percent, just shy of an outright majority. The Nazis formed government by forging a coalition with the German National Peoples Party. Then they quickly set about dismantling the Weimar democracy and replacing it with a one-party dictatorship.

Their main weapon in this campaign was fear. In the current American political landscape, president Donald Trump actively inflames fear of immigrants, “playing to his base” and creating an issue that he can exploit in his bid for re-election. In the same way, the Nazis used their propaganda machinery to stir up fear of communism in 1933. They were aided by the torching of the Reichstag (parliament) building, purportedly by a young communist sympathizer, although there is speculation that the Nazis engineered the arson themselves to arouse anger against their political foes.

The arson helped convince President Hindenburg to pass the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” a measure that suspended many civil rights, and allowed the Nazis to arrest and imprison leading communists, including some of the elected deputies in the Reichstag. They also began a campaign of intimidation against the Social Democrats and other political enemies. Then they introduced the so-called “Enabling Act,” legislation that would essentially give the chancellor (Hitler) the power to enact laws without the approval of parliament.

Because such legislation would, in essence, be an amendment to the constitution, it required a two-thirds majority to pass. The Nazis and their allies did not hold sufficient seats and therefore required other parties to vote with them. The Communists and Social Democrats were firm in their opposition, so Hitler focused his attention on the remaining Reichstag parties, the largest of which was the Catholic-based Centre Party, led by the priest Ludwig Kaas. After a period of negotiation an agreement, which included certain guarantees for the Catholic Church, was reached and the Enabling Act was passed into law on March 23.

This article from the March 24, 1933 edition of the New York Daily News describles the passage of the Enabling Act in the Reichstag.

Much has been made of the Nazis’ use of intimidation to bully members of the Reichstag into voting for the act. They certainly used every tactic they had at their disposal to tip the scales in their favor. Communist deputies were banned, and several Social Democrats were detained under the Fire Decree. There was a large presence of SA troops in the chamber during the vote, ostensibly to convince any deputies who might be wavering to vote in favor.

However, I think this obscures the main issue. German politics at that time was a rough-and-tumble affair and, despite the harassment, all 94 Social Democrat deputies in the Reichstag voted against the act. While intimidation may have played a role, the fact remains that, even had all the Social Democrat and Communist deputies voted against, the act would still have passed. The reason the other political parties, some of them quite powerful in their own right, agreed to hand power over to a dictator was not intimidation. It was the fear factor—fear of a communist uprising—that ultimately motivated the politicians, supported by German business leaders, to give Hitler what he wanted. He was seen as the lesser evil, and the business and political establishment believed he could be managed. A serious miscalculation, in hindsight.

It is telling that while Hitler’s speeches in the early 1920s, when he was an obscure Bavarian radical, are filled with antisemitic invective, his speech to the Reichstag ahead of the Enabling Act vote made no mention of Jews. The words Communist, Communism, Marxist and Marxism, on the other hand, were uttered eleven times. The social conditions in the country were so dire that the threat of a socialist revolution was real. Hitler had captured the imagination of the people and was seen by many as, in the words of one follower, “…the savior of an evil and tragic German world.” The other politicians of the day caved in to his demands in the hopes that Hitler’s popularity would forestall the communist threat and that, once he’d attained absolute power, he would ruthlessly crush the communists through arrest and imprisonment.

It all came to pass, just not quite in the way that the establishment had hoped. Hitler conveniently forgot to mention that his ultimate goal was to cleanse Germany not only of communists but also Jews, for whom he held a pathological hatred, and all the other minority groups he saw as contaminants of the Aryan Volk. From March 23, 1933 onward it was Hitler’s vision and agenda that drove the German nation. Those who hoped to hold any position of influence or authority joined the Party. Most of those who disapproved of Hitler and his Nazis kept their thoughts to themselves. Those with the courage to voice opposition ended up in concentration camps, or worse. And thus began the descent into the darkness that was the Third Reich.

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1 Comment

Jürgen Körber
Jürgen Körber
Mar 23, 2019

Hallo Karl! Interessante Geschichtsstunde. Treffend, was du über Trump schreibst. Wäre interessant, mit dir darüber zu reden und zu diskutieren. Gruß Jürgen!

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