This essay will look at what a dictatorship is and how it operates, how the population is brought to a point where they accept a dictatorship, and examine and analyze the vital events that took place in Germany which lead to Hitler assuming dictatorial power: the Reichstag fire, the Emergency Decree, the Enabling Act, the banning of trade unions and other political parties, the Night Of The Long Knives, the death of President Hindenburg, and the German army’s oath of loyalty to Hitler.
It will be argued that while all the mentioned events were crucial, ultimately, the single most important factor to Hitler’s success was the Enabling Act. What is a dictator? A dictator is a ruler who has absolute power over a country, power that is, typically, obtained through force. Therefore, a dictatorship is when “a single person… rule over an entire country and place great restrictions on personal and economic freedom… depending on how tight of a hold the government has, it can govern where you will work… what religion you may belong to, and what schools your children will attend”.
The occurrence of the Reichstag fire was Hitler’s first step to dictatorship. One week before the general elections, on February 27th, 1933, the Reichstag buildings went up in flames. Marinus Van der Lubbe, a Dutch Communist, was found in the building with lighting equipment, and was arrested and hung. Hitler claimed it was “the beginning of a Communist uprising” – he demanded emergency powers to “deal with the situation” 2 from Hindenburg, who gave them to him.
These powers were called the Emergency Decree.
In conclusion, the Emergency Decree took away German people’s basic liberties – freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom from imprisonment without trial – it replaced constitutional government by a permanent state of emergency. The Emergency Decree, as stated earlier, placed substantial restrictions on the people’s personal freedom, illustrating Hitler’s step toward a dictatorship. Considering how harsh Hitler’s dictatorship was, it is hard not to wonder how and why the population accepted his dictatorship.
Hitler brought the population to this point mainly by the use of propaganda, the manipulation and brainwashing of German youth, and, most importantly, the use of terror . Issued on March 24th, 1933, and officially named the “Law for Removing the Distress of the People and the Reich”, the Enabling Act essentially meant the end of democracy in Germany, establishing the legal dictatorship of Hitler, by giving him “the power to make laws without the approval of either the Reichstag or the President” .
But why would the Reichstag vote for a dictator, and in effect, vote themselves out of existence? In order to ensure that the Reichstag voted in favor of the Enabling Act, Hitler used the method of intimidation and terror to coerce them – when the members of the Reichstag met in the Kroll Opera House to vote, “the [armed] SA and SS men lined up at the exits” 4 menacingly. Proceeding the Enabling Act was the banning of trade unions and the Nazis’ political opponents.
On May 2nd, 1933, trade unions were closed – their leaders were put in prisons, and their money was confiscated. Replacing the trade unions was the German Labor Front. The GLF not only reduced workers’ salaries, but took away their right to strike, once again exhibiting Hitler’s rise to dictatorship by greatly limiting the publics personal and economic freedom. Not long after this, on July 14th, a law was passed against the formation of political parties. A dictatorship is “the governing power where no opposition is tolerated” 1.
After the Reichstag Fire, Hitler had already eliminated his most threatening opponents – the Communists – but until this law was passed, other political parties had been accepted. “The Law against the Formation of Parties declared the Nazi Party the only political party in Germany” . Hitler dealt with opponents to the Nazi’s by opening up concentration camps, as well as passing censorship laws “to prevent anti-Nazi views being published” . The Night Of The Long Knives was another major event that occurred in those 18 months.
It was, in essence, a purge of the Sturm Abteiling (the SA) and people who had angered Hitler in the recent past. By June of 1934, due to a developing power-struggle in Nazi-leadership, “Hitler had to make a choice between the army and the SA” . Each of the two groups had their pros and cons: The army, while being, well trained, efficient, and crucially, the only organization with the power to remove Hitler, was limited to 100,000 men (consequences of the Treaty of Versailles), and had many Generals who disliked Hitler and the Nazis, therefore its loyalty was undisclosed.
The SA were committed Nazis who had fought with and for Hitler in the past, and consisted of 2,500,000 men – 25 times larger than the army – but Rohm, while being an old friend of Hitler’s, had made enemies with some leading Nazis, the SA was beginning to get out of control, and was “interfering with the running of the country and the law courts” 7. Also, Hitler was in a state of paranoia, due to rumors being spread about Rohm wanting to carry out a coup.
In the end, Hitler chose the army over the SA, and over the next two days, June 29th – 30th, roughly 200 men were executed for ‘treason’, and the SA went under the command of the army. It is worth noting that the army did not like Rohm or the SA (as he had openly said that he wanted to absorb the army into the SA), thus Hitler’s choice gained him wide-spread popularity among the army.
Just weeks after the Night Of the Long Knives, President Hindenburg died, and almost immediately, Hitler declared himself President, meaning that he occupied the position of Chancellor, Head of State, and Commander of the Army . Popularity in the army was not the only thing that he gained from his decision of the army over the SA: Hitler had agreed with the army that if he removed the SA leaders and the SA went under control of the regular army, the army would have to swear a personal oath of loyalty, not to Germany, but to Hitler.
This demonstrates that the army’s oath of loyalty, on the 24th of August, 1934, was not an act of patriotism; the oath stated, “I swear by God this sacred oath: that I will render unconditional obedience to the Fuhrer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler… and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath” . Through all of the mentioned events, it is clear that slowly, step-by-step, Hitler was transforming Germany, replacing democracy with a dictatorship.