The Election of November 1938 and the Reichstag Fire

In July 1932, Chancellor Franz von Papen dissolved the German parliament, or Reichstag, and called for new elections in November, hoping to reduce the National Socialist majority. As Papen predicted, at the polls on 6 November 1932, Adolf’s Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party lost seats to the Nationalists, and the Social Democrats lost seats to the Communists. The Nazi’s voting bloc of Nationalists, National Socialists, Social Fascists, and Anti-Comintern Social Democrat defectors that elected the Nazi Party to the most seats in the Reichstag in 1931 and 32 was breaking down and had seemingly culminated. However, the Communists, on orders from Moscow, refused to work with the Social Democrats who in turn refused to work with Nazi’s. The National Socialists had by far the most seats, but not enough to form a government. Since no one party in the German parliament could form a majority government President Hindenburg was urged to continue governing through emergency decrees until a new electoral system that included an upper house was devised.

Franz von Papen, the most historically important person you’ve never heard of, had other ideas.

At the end of January, von Papen, formerly of the Catholic Center Party but opportunistically turned Nationalist after they picked up Center Party seats, co-opted the National Socialists to form a government. For seven months Germany lacked a government at the height of the Depression. This alliance gave the Nationalists and National Socialists a slim majority in parliament, but just enough to form a government exclusive of the other parties, and with von Papen the puppetmaster of the upstart Nazis.

Hindenburg, a monarchist, would still be president and Von Papen, as the minority member would be Vice Chancellor. Papen, a nobleman, convinced Hindenburg that the Nazis could be controlled if the low born Hitler was made part of the government. Hitler, a former laborer, starving artist and corporal in the Great War, was thought to be susceptible to manipulation when confronted daily with the problems of governance, and would seek assistance from his political and administrative betters. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. But Hitler wasn’t interested in sharing power with the Nationalists. One of his first acts was to dissolve the Reichstag and announce a new election in March, an election he was sure would bring majority power to his National Socialists.

However, on the night of 27 February 1933, just a month after Hitler became Chancellor, the German Reichstag building, where the parliament met, caught fire in an obvious arson attempt. Before the Berlin Fire Department could put out the fire, the building was gutted. A member of the Dutch Communist Party, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught at the scene. Hitler, Josef Goebbels his propaganda minister, and Herman Goering, a cabinet minister charged with forming the secret police (the eventual Gestapo) immediately denounced the Communists and declared the attack the first act of a Communist revolution. The next day, President Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree to preempt the suspected Communist putsch.

With no parliament, the President had emergency dictatorial powers according to the Weimar Constitution and the Reichstag Fire Decree suspended virtually all civil liberties in Germany. The freedoms of speech, assembly, press, privacy, association and habeas corpus were all suspended indefinitely. The National Socialists immediately mobilized and shut down any newspaper and radio station not friendly to the Nazis. Tens of thousands of Communists and political adversaries were arrested and the Communist party banned in the March election.

After mass voter fraud, suppression, and intimidation stemming from the provisos in Reichstag Fire Decree, the National Socialists won a majority in Reichstag that March. The first act of the new democratically elected majority in the German parliament was to pass the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was an amendment to the Weimar Constitution which allowed the German cabinet, in effect Hitler himself, to enact laws without consent of the Reichstag. On 23 March 1933, the elderly President Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act into law which made Chancellor Adolf Hitler a legal dictator.
In the space of just two months, the National Socialists, with just a simple majority, went from a powerful, but still minority party, to the majority party with sole lawmaking and executive powers. The Nationalists were intimidated into dissolving their party in June 1933, and all other political parties were banned that November. By the end of 1933, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists had complete control of Germany.

While Hitler and the National Socialists consolidated power, Marinus van der Lubbe and several other Communists were put on trial for the Reichstag Fire. A court in Leipzig determined that van der Lubbe acted alone and he was executed in 1934 for his role in the Reichstag Fire.

Though no definitive “smoking gun” was ever found implicating the National Socialists in the Reichstag fire, a mountain of circumstantial evidence did, most of which was found from captured German documents in the Soviet Archive after the fall of Soviet Communism in 1990. Though we will probably never know exactly what happened, the generally accepted theory is that van der Lubbe, a lifelong unstable pyromaniac who had recently firebombed several buildings, did plan, and maybe even attempted to destroy the Reichstag building. Goering through his spies learned of the plan and Goebbels ordered Ernst Rahm of the SA to carry out a parallel plan. After Rahm’s SA team started the fire and escaped, van der Lubbe was arranged to be in the area (or was even possibly setting his own arson) and picked up as the culprit. His own planning was used as evidence against him. The SA team, and Rahm himself, were killed in The Night of the Long Knives in 1934, erasing any future witnesses of Nazi complicity in the fire.

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