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The Nazi revolution of power was as extraordinary as it was unique. It was a revolution that placed the ‘unknown soldier’ or the ‘nobody of Vienna’ in charge of government in one of Europe’s most powerful countries. It had not been too long before, that Adolf Hitler had been in prison and it had not been too long before, that the Nazi party was a fringe party on the edge of the political spectrum, which most people considered to be irrelevant.
The amazing fact is that to the general observer, the revolution would appear to be completely legal. After all, the Nazi party did receive the largest share of the votes in the Reichstag elections and the Enabling Act, which secured Hitler dictatorial powers, was passed through the Reichstag. However, if the general observer was to look beneath the surface, there is no doubt that he would discover elements of illegality, which were crucial in assuring the Nazi ascension to power.
As Ian Kershaw points out, Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor was an extraordinary political drama and one, which unfolded largely out of sight of the German people (1). It was the result of several meetings between Hitler and Von Papen and several more between Hindenburg and Von Papen. It was not the result of elections, which should have been the case considering the Weimar Republic claimed to be a democracy. At the end of the talks it was decided that Hitler should be appointed Chancellor as Germany needed a strong leader with public support and one who had the ability to crush Communism.
As mentioned above, the Nazis did receive a large amount of the vote and was by far the largest party in the Reichstag. When elections were again called in March 1933, whilst Hitler was the Chancellor (der Kanzler), the Nazi party again received the biggest share of the vote with 43.9% of Germans demonstrating their preference for Nazi leadership. It is therefore customary to declare this as legal because over forty percent of the German population had demonstrated their support for Hitler by giving him their vote. However this is only part of the truth. The election campaign witnessed a huge barrage of SA violence and intimidation, which resulted in the deaths of sixty-nine people and the destruction of one of Hitler’s main rivals, the Communist Party. In Prussia Hermann Gï¿½ring (a Nazi who held the position of interior minister for Prussia), took control of the police force (over half of Germany’s entire force) and insisted that they serve Nazi interests and that if they did not, they would be sacked. He also drafted in many SA men to become part of the police force and went about arresting and assaulting many political opponents. It is therefore not surprising that the Nazis won a large share of the vote. The election campaign of 1933 was far from legal.
Five days before the elections, on the 27th of February 1933 somebody set fire to the Reichstag. A young Dutchman by the name of Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested in connection with the attack and confessed whilst in police custody. Although he confessed to working alone the Nazis immediately claimed that it was part of a treasonous Communist plot and by the following morning, 4000 Communists had been arrested. This seriously undermined the Communist election campaign and resulted in them losing 19 of their seats. Hitler also persuaded Hindenburg into granting The Decree for the Protection of People and State which allowed the government the power to arrest without trial, censor post and telephone calls and restrict freedom of expression.
This went directly against much of what was in the Weimar Constitution. Also, many historians have pointed to the convenience of the fire which, five days before the election, allowed the Nazis to seriously disadvantage the Communists during the election campaign. Also a subsequent trial eighteen years later acquitted van der Lubbe from the crime altogether, and it emerged that there was a tunnel leading directly from Gï¿½ring’s house to the Reichstag. All of this suggests that the arson attack was not a Communist plot to overthrow the government but instead a Nazi plot to destroy the Communists, a major rival party. This was one of the most crucial moments for the Nazi revolution, but all evidence suggests that it was completely illegal.
On 5th March 1933 the Reichstag voted to pass the Enabling Act. This Act resulted in the Reichstag becoming irrelevant and giving the cabinet the right to pass laws without the Reichstag’s permission. It gave Hitler the power of a dictator. To the general observer this would appear to be completely legal as it was passed through the Reichstag. However, many of the Communist deputies in the Reichstag were in custody following the Reichstag Fire and also, all of the entrances to the Reichstag were guarded by the SA who refused to allow Communist and Socialist deputies in. This accounted for 107 deputies who would have voted against the Act. This completely contradicts democracy and was therefore completely illegal:
‘Giring added that, if necessary, some Social Democrats could be ejected from the chamber. That is how little the Nazis’ ‘legal revolution’ had to do with legality.’ (2)
The most blatant illegal part of the Nazi revolution but perhaps also the most crucial was the Night of the Long Knifes in July 1934. Mass murder is one of the biggest crimes that can be committed. However it is exactly what Hitler did. He believed that the leader of the SA, Ernst Rï¿½hm was becoming a threat. Rï¿½hm wanted to merge the SA with the army, but the army were extremely opposed to this idea as they saw the SA as untrained street thugs and they also despised Rï¿½hm because he was an alcoholic and a homosexual, both of which were characteristics looked down upon by the conservative army commanders. Hitler desperately needed the army on his side as they were the only group, who could seriously threaten his revolution, so were dangerous enemies to have. He therefore sent the elite SS to kill the most prominent figures within the SA. They were murdered in cold blood. The army chiefs were extremely happy about this and when President Hindenburg died in August that year, the army swore an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Hitler had achieved what he had wanted to, but he had not achieved it through legality.
From January 1933 to August 1934 Hitler had transformed from a Chancellor who had been ‘hired’ by Von Papen and Hindenburg, to the supreme dictator of Germany. Although, from the outside this revolution can appear legal, and to the German people at the time it all seemed perfectly legal, this revolution was littered with spots of illegality. The election result was largely the work of illegal SA intimidation and murder. The illegal arson attack on the Reichstag was probably committed by a Nazi. 107 Communist and Socialist deputies were illegally refused entrance into the Reichstag for the passing of the Enabling Act and most obvious of all, approximately 90 people were illegally killed in the Night of the Long Knifes as a result of an order from Hitler. The Nazi revolution of 1933-34 can not, in the slightest, be described as a ‘legal revolution’.
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