Should nationalism override humanity

Background current

On February 28, 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin burned down. The background to this has not yet been clarified beyond doubt. One thing is certain: the NSDAP knew how to use the crime for itself. With the "Reichstag Fire Ordinance", it suspended basic rights and paved the way for dictatorship.

View into the burned out plenary hall of the Reichstag building. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

There are few events in recent German history whose actual course is as controversial as the events of the night of February 27-28, 1933. At that time, the Reichstag in Berlin was on fire and the plenary hall burned down completely. The fire brigade and police quickly assumed it was arson. Who was behind the fire that was set in several places in the parliament building is still controversial today.

It is undisputed, however, that the National Socialists knew how to use the fire for themselves without hesitation. The "Ordinance of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State" passed on February 28th went down in history as the so-called Reichstag Fire Ordinance: The emergency ordinance based on Paragraph 48 of the Weimar Constitution enabled the NSDAP to massively expand the persecution of political opponents and led to a "permanent state of emergency and the liquidation of the rule of law", as the historian Ulrich Herbert analyzed. The ordinance helped "to establish a modern totalitarian dictatorship," wrote the Mainz historian Michael Kißener.

On the night of the crime, the police arrested the Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe, an avowed anarchist and supporter of a council system, in the Reichstag building. Numerous other members of the opposition were arrested in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire, including functionaries of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Finally, van der Lubbe and the chairman of the German KPD parliamentary group Ernst Togler and three Bulgarian communists - Georgi Dimitroff, Blagoi Popow and Wassil Tanew - were indicted in the Reichsgericht in Leipzig in autumn 1933. The process, which the NSDAP government influenced from the beginning, was also closely observed internationally. In the end, the arguments of the prosecution could not prevail and the court acquitted the defendants - despite enormous pressure from the Nazi regime - at the end of 1933 except for van der Lubbe, the latter was executed in January 1934. The Federal Prosecutor's Office only found in December 2007 that the judgment against Marinus van der Lubbe - like many other judgments that had been pronounced under the injustice regime - had been overturned.

Historians' dispute: did a single person ignite the Reichstag?

On the evening of the Reichstag fire, the then Prussian Minister of the Interior, Hermann Göring, and other NSDAP functionaries hurriedly announced that the KPD was attempting to insurrection - a thesis that is now considered to be refuted in historical research. There is no valid motive for the KPD to be involved. After all, at the time of the crime it was already foreseeable that the fire would provide the Hitler government with a welcome pretext to crack down on political opponents and, for example, to cancel the mandates of KPD members.

For a long time, the single perpetrator thesis was considered a consensus among modern historians. At the beginning of the 1960s, the Lower Saxony constitution protection officer Fritz Tobias and the historian Hans Mommsen coined the thesis that the fire was very convenient for the Nazis, but that they had nothing to do with the planning and course of the crime.

Again and again, however, there were doubts about this finding, also with a view to possible Nazi perpetrators. In particular, because the visually impaired van der Lubbe is said to have been able to successfully start fires in a large number of places in a relatively short time. Individual earlier works that attempted to refute the sole perpetrator thesis, however, are suspected of having falsified or falsified sources. However, Tobias was also faced with similar allegations.

To this day, the question of who was responsible for the fire in the Reichstag in 1933 remains controversial.

Brutal action against political opponents and restriction of fundamental rights

The police and the so-called Sturmabteilung of the NSDAP (SA) arrested several thousand people in the hours after the fire, mostly communists, including many KPD members, but also social democrats and left-wing intellectuals. Tens of thousands of members of the opposition would follow in the following weeks. Because the prisons were quickly overcrowded, the SA set up temporary concentration camps.

At the suggestion of the government, President Paul von Hindenburg issued the ordinance "for the protection of people and state" on February 28. It should serve the "defense against communist acts of violence that endanger the state". In fact, it made the Nazi terror against political opponents of the government possible. Political scientist Ernst Fraenkel summed up the ordinance in 1940 as the "actual constitutional document" for Nazi rule. With it, the government received dictatorial powers: basic rights were suspended, such as freedom of the person, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press as well as freedom of association and assembly. The state also restricted postal secrecy and property rights and banned newspapers critical of the regime. The emergency ordinance also allowed the NSDAP government to "temporarily exercise the powers of the highest state authority" and thus did preparatory work for the nationalization and centralization strategy of the NS regime until 1934.

Source text

Ordinance of the Reich President for the protection of the people and the state. 28 February 1933.

On the basis of Article 48, Paragraph 2 of the Reich Constitution, the following is decreed to prevent communist acts of violence that endanger the state:

§ 1
Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. There are therefore restrictions on personal freedom, the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, the right of association and assembly, encroachment on the secrecy of letters, mail, telegraph and telephone, orders for house searches and confiscations as well as restrictions on property outside of it the statutory limits otherwise specified for this.

§ 2
If the measures necessary to restore public security and order are not taken in a Land, the Reich Government may temporarily exercise the powers of the highest Land authority in this respect.

§ 3
The authorities of the federal states and municipalities (associations of municipalities) must obey the orders of the Reich government issued on the basis of Section 2 within the scope of their jurisdiction.

§ 4
Anyone who violates the orders issued by the highest Land authorities or the authorities subordinate to them to implement this ordinance or the orders issued by the Reich Government in accordance with Section 2 or who requests or incites such an infringement, unless the act according to other regulations is subject to a heavier penalty is threatened, punished with imprisonment of not less than one month or with a fine of 150 to 15,000 Reichsmarks.

Anyone who causes a common danger to human life through an infringement according to Paragraph 1 is sentenced to prison, in extenuating circumstances with imprisonment for not less than six months and, if the infringement causes the death of a person, with death, in extenuating circumstances with imprisonment not less than two months Years punished. In addition, asset confiscation can be recognized.

Anyone who encourages or incites an offense (Paragraph 2) that is dangerous to the public will be punished with penal servitude, or in extenuating circumstances with imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months.

§ 5
Death is to be punished for the crimes set out in sections 81 (high treason), 229 (introduction of poison), 307 (arson), 311 (explosion), 312 (flood), 315 (2) (damage to railway systems) , 324 (poisoning dangerous to the public) threatened with life imprisonment.

The following is punished with death or, unless a heavier sentence has been threatened up to now, with life imprisonment or with imprisonment for up to 15 years: Anyone who undertakes to kill the Reich President or a member or a commissioner of the Reich government or a state government or who is part of one requests, offers, accepts such killing or arranges such killing with another; who in the cases of Section 115 (2) of the Criminal Code (serious riot) or Section 125 (2) of the Criminal Code (serious breach of the peace) commits the act with weapons or in conscious and willful cooperation with an armed man; whoever commits a deprivation of liberty (§ 239) of the Criminal Code with the intention of using the deprived of liberty as a hostage in the political struggle.

§ 6
This ordinance comes into force on the day of its promulgation.

Berlin, February 28, 1933.
The Reich President von Hindenburg
The Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler
The Reich Minister of the Interior Frick
The Reich Minister of Justice Dr. Gürtner

Here after: Reichsgesetzblatt I / 1933, No. 17, February 28, 1933, p. 38.

Source: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 100 (0) key documents on German history in the 20th century



Elimination of the rule of law

The rulers were now also able to completely prevent the work of unpopular parties - the KPD was the first to be hit, others followed. Political opponents could easily be taken into "protective custody" and anyone could be arbitrarily arrested. The rule of law was largely eliminated. The arrests and the de facto elimination of the KPD had a massively intimidating influence on the election campaign. The SPD and the Center Party were also hindered. With 43.9 percent of the vote on March 5, the NSDAP did not succeed in gaining an absolute majority. Unlike in the first few weeks after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the NSDAP and DNVP now jointly have a majority.

But this was soon no longer necessary for Hitler to exercise power. On March 24, 1933, the Reichstag approved its own disempowerment against the votes of the SPD and in the absence of the Communists. The government should be able to pass laws itself with the help of the law "to remedy the misery of the people and empire", the so-called Enabling Act. These no longer had to be in conformity with the constitution, and the NSDAP government could even change the constitution. The bourgeois parties had agreed to their own end.

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