Laura Grove -
Early in his political career, Adolf Hitler participated in the infamous failed Beer Hall Putsch that had attempted to overthrow the government by force. After this, he quickly came to the conclusion that he had to work through the Weimar Republic, not against it, to bring about its downfall and his ascendance. Consequently, he developed the Laws to Remove the Distress of the People and the State, or Enabling Act. The act would allow Hitler to control the government almost completely unconstrained by the Reichstag. However, in order for such an act to pass, it needed two-thirds support from the Reichstag. Because of this, Hitler and his supporters strategically manipulated and intimidated parties that generally opposed the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. The two largest such parties were the Catholic Center (BVP) and Social Democratic (SDP) parties. Hitler’s gift for persuasion combined with his strategic method of terrorizing ultimately paved the way for the legal passage of the Enabling Act and his assumption of dictatorial power, for his treatment of the BVP and SDP significantly influence how each party voted.
From the moment Hitler became Chancellor on January 30, 1933 he began preparing the way for the passage of the Enabling Act. Knowing he would need a two-thirds majority to pass the act, Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to dissolve the current Reichstag in the hope of winning a Nazi Majority. Such elections were soon scheduled for March 5th. Even before the Reichstag had been officially dissolved, Hitler was already campaigning and preventing other parties from doing so. Nazi SS and SA men constantly harassed the BVP and SDP. Gatherings of members of these parties were broken up (occasionally violently) to prevent effective campaigning. While this certainly hurt the BVP and SDP’s political standing, the Communist party received even harsher treatment. This was due in large part to the fact that Hitler believed the Communists were at the roots of most problems in Germany. He believed, “We [Germans] must overcome the demoralization in Germany by the Communists”. Thus when the Reichstag building was set on fire on February 27, 1933, Hitler capitalized on it to discredit the Communist Party. To this day it is unclear who started the fire, but ultimately the cause of the fire is not nearly as important as Hitler’s reaction to it. Claiming the fire was the work of the Communists, Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree. With this, Hitler was able to arrest thousands of Communists leaders and ban the Communist Party, affectively removing them from the Reichstag and subsequently preventing them from having any say in the passage of the Enabling Act. This, in turn, strengthened Hitler and the Nazis’ position in power as it eliminated 81 seats (12% of total seats) in the Reichstag before the vote took place. Despite all these efforts, the Nazis still did not receive the majority Hitler had envisioned. However, they did gain seats and with the help of their ally the German National People’s Party (GNVP) they achieved a small majority. Thus Hitler and the Nazis initial intimidation methods impacted the political demographics of the Reichstag just before the Enabling Act was introduced.
Throughout all of this, the BVP and the SDP did not sit back idly. The BVP, although originally upset at Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, let themselves be wooed by Hitler’s charisma. After his appointment (which the BVP had not been informed of previously), Hitler spoke with leading members to reassure them that their interests would not be lost. In his first radio broadcast as Chancellor, Hitler attempted to further convince the BVP of his good intentions by saying, “may Almighty God favor our work, shape our will in the right way, bless our vision and bless us with the trust of our people. We have no desire to fight for ourselves; only for Germany.” In saying this he assured the BVP that he had nothing but good, Godly intentions for Germany. However, he did not take the same care when dealing with the SDP. After the election in March, the SDP obtained 120 seats and the BVP 73 seats. With the Communists banned from the Reichstag and the GNVP already on their side, Hitler only needed one of the two parties’ votes to obtain the two-thirds majority he needed to pass the Enabling Act. The BVP was in the center of the political spectrum while the Nazis were on the right and the SDP on the left. The SDP and the Nazi parties were too politically different to compromise effectively. Thus because the BVP was less ideologically different than the Nazis, Hitler chose to focus all his attentions and persuasive abilities on them rather than the SDP.
On March 7th Hitler officially introduced the Enabling Act to his cabinet. If the act were to pass, it would give Hitler and his cabinet the authority to make decisions without consent from the Reichstag. Additionally, the document stated, “Reich Cabinet laws can deviate from the constitution”. Thus the Enabling Act, once passed, would give Hitler nearly dictatorial authority. However, when Hitler presented the act to the Reichstag in Kroll Opera House on March 23 he presented himself as already commanding a great amount of authority. Behind the podium where he spoke, an eagle with a swastika stood tall, commanding everyone’s attention (See Appendix I). There were no other symbols or decorations in the room. Displaying the Nazi symbol in this prominent position demonstrated the power and prestige of the Nazi party to the members of the Reichstag. This coupled with the SS troops Hitler had stationed around the building suggested to any potential dissenters that Hitler and the Nazis were already in a place of power and that there was nothing anyone could do but submit or be forced to submit. This was one of many of the simple, perhaps not so subtle, methods of intimidation used when attempting to pass the act.
When actually presenting the Enabling Act to the Reichstag, Hitler used his gift as a great orator to persuade the Reichstag to vote in favor of the act. In his speech he described Germany as a country on the verge of disaster due to its internally divided political state. He declared, “The completely opposite approaches of the individuals to the concepts of state, society, religion, morality, family, and economy rips open differences which will lead to a war of all against all.” He went on to stress how this had affected the economy and promise to keep money from flowing out to other countries. In doing so he aimed to show how such an act would benefit the country by eliminating party competition and providing much needed unity at the legislative level. He closed by declaring, “You may, Gentlemen, now choose for yourselves between peace and war”, thus stressing that blocking the passage of the Enabling act would only lead to more bickering between parties and stalled progress. He put the pressure on them. He offered up the Enabling Act as a way to avoid internal war, but if they refuse, he promised the bickering would continue to get worse and the country more divided. This combination the Nazi party décor and powerful speech demonstrated Hitler’s commanding nature and aggressive tenacity. If the Reichstag passed the bill he could promise them progress, if not continued fighting and manipulation undoubtedly headed by the Nazis themselves.
Hitler used the methods abovementioned to ensure against last minute dissentions, but it was because of similar intimidation methods and false hopes implemented earlier that the BVP ultimately chose to vote in favor of the Enabling Act. The exact details of why the BVP voted for the act are not universally agreed upon, but ultimately it came down to Hitler’s understanding of the party and its desires. Unlike the SDP, the BVP held many civil service positions in Germany. Although not allowed total freedom of speech, the BVP did not receive the same degree of persecution. Franz von Papen, a passed leader of the BVP, served as Hitler’s Vice-Chancellor, demonstrating that by working with the Nazis, they could preserve their interests. Hitler made the strategic move of having Papen himself negotiate with the BVP to convince them of this fact. In their meetings before the vote, Papen and Kaas reached an agreement in the form of the promise of the creation of the Reich Concordat that would guarantee the Catholic Church the freedom of self-administration as long as they remained separate and removed from the political sphere. Thus Ludwig Kaas, leader of the BVP, agreed to pass the act under considerable pressure from the Nazis and the promise of security through the Reich Concordat. Though the BVP was treated less harshly than other parties, it experienced considerable persecution, and thus it sought to protect the Catholic Church’s standing in Germany. The BVP was based, “in Christian values of duty and responsibility for one's fellow German and for Germany”. Thus they were susceptible to the patriotic arguments Hitler constantly spouted. Hitler understood this and acted on it. He gave them hope for self-preservation in the example of Papen and the guarantee of the Reich Concordat. Although this proved not to protect the party from eventually being disbanded, the false hope Hitler installed in them helped pave the way from the passage of the Enabling Act.
One event that highlights the reasons the BVP was more prone to finding hope for continued existence within the emerging Nazi regime than SDP was the dissolving of the Socialist run government in Prussia in 1932. Although this was before Hitler came to power, it demonstrated why the BVP found hope in Hitler’s rising regime and the SDP did not. Even before Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the SDP had experienced persecution. In 1932, the SDP dominated cabinet in Prussia was disbanded by President Hindenburg and replaced temporarily by Papen. To the BVP, this showed that cooperation could lead to securing and even continued success. Papen, who had previously been the leader of the BVP, had worked with the government and consequently been given increased authority and avoided persecution at least temporarily. The SDP on the other hand was too fundamentally different from the current national government and was consequently mistreated rather than negotiated with. When the Communist party was banned in Germany with the Reichstag Fire Decree, it became all the more evident that Hitler would stop at nothing to eliminate competition. Thus the BVP historically had more reason to hope that security could be obtained through cooperation, while the SDP felt there was no security in cooperation and thus nothing to loose by acting on their beliefs.
Instead of persuasion and compromise, the SDP received persecution and disrespect in the time leading up to the voting on the Enabling Act. After Hitler presented the Enabling Act to the Reichstag, Otto Wels, the leader of the SDP, was permitted to respond. In his speech he declared that he and the rest of his party would not be bullied into submission. “Considering the persecution the SDP has suffered recently, no one can fairly demand or expect of it that it cast its vote in favor of the Enabling Act introduced here”. The SDP experienced intense suppression under the emerging Nazi regime, consequently it chose to stick by its principles and vote against the Enabling Act. They knew if the act passed the persecution would just continue to intensify as the Nazis gained power, so by refusing to bend under current pressures, they knew they could not lose anything. They had no false sense of hope to cling to. Wels went on to say, “We Social Democrats are aware that one cannot eliminate the realities of power politics by the simple act of legal protests. We see the reality of your present rule. But the people’s sense of justice also wields political power, and we will never stop appealing to this sense of justice.” He and the rest of the SDP knew that they could not stop the act, but they refused to be compliant with it. This was due in large part to Hitler’s handling of the party in a repressive and demeaning manner. He did not even attempt to work with the party or provide them with any sense of false hope; he only persecuted them. When the voting took place, only 94 of the 120 SDP members of the Reichstag were allowed inside as many had been arrested and others were simply kept out. He had absolutely no respect for the party. In his response to Wels’ speech, Hitler spat, “You are sissies, Gentlemen, and not worthy of this age….”. Then declared, “I can only say to you: I do not even want you to vote for it! Germany will be liberated, but not by you!”. Hitler had secured the BVP’s vote the day before in secret negotiations, and thus had no reason to pretend to want the SDP’s support. Instead he continued to harass them and fuel their defiance. In the end, the SDP voted against the act, not to prevent it from passing, but to make a statement and stand by its beliefs.
Ultimately Hitler managed to pass the Enabling Act by picking and choosing his battles wisely. He chose to work with the BVP and not the SDP because he knew he had a more realistic chance of getting the BVP to work with him than the SDP, which he detested. Unlike the SDP, the BVP had something to loose. Hitler provided them with an opportunity for security and threatening examples of what could happen if they resisted, pressuring them into submission. Of course, even this promise of security was faulty, for not long after the act was passed Hitler banned all parties except for the Nazis. This combine with strategic and often subtle intimidation methods allowed Hitler to push the act through. Ultimately the Enabling Act of 1933 was approved by a vote of 441-94 with the SDP, or at least those allowed in the building, the only party to vote against this act. This stands in testament to Hitler’s great persuasive abilities, both through oration and intimidation. The fact Hitler was able to persuade the Reichstag to voluntarily give up its power is simply astonishing. It shows how easily we can fall prey to suggestion when we feel our interests are threatened. Hitler was a great politician as he was able to legally and skillfully squirm his way into the political limelight, but in the end he proved to be one of the most infamous leaders in all of human history. Thus today his ascendance through the passage of the Enabling Act demonstrates not only how difficult it can be to hold firmly to our beliefs and morals when under pressure, but also stands as an example of why it is so important that we do so.