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Acton Commentary

Crisis and Constitution: Hitler’s rise to power

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. While he was being sworn in he said, "I will employ my strength for the welfare of the German people, protect the Constitution and laws of the German people, conscientiously discharge the duties imposed on me and conduct my affairs of office impartially and with justice to everyone.” Neither the German people, nor the rest of world, had any idea that this day was the beginning of an incremental concentration of power that would later lead to the death of millions of people and catalyze World War II. The lesson the world learned from Hitler concerning the dangers of unchecked power should never be forgotten.

In the week following his oath of office, Chancellor Hitler convinced German president Paul von Hindenburg to do two things: dissolve parliament and authorize the Minister of the Interior and the police to prohibit public meetings and publications that might be considered a danger to public safety. The conditions that made this kind of anti-democratic move possible were economic depression, political instability (including the threat of revolution), and a widespread desire to regain national dignity following the shame of defeat in World War I.

The Nazis played on these fears and desires. On the night of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building, where parliament met, was set on fire. Whether the action was undertaken at the behest of the Nazi Party or was an independent act remains debatable, but that Hitler capitalized on the panic that ensued is certain. The next day Hitler urged Hindenburg to respond by issuing a new law that suspended sections of the German Constitution that protected individual liberties. In this “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and the State,” the German people were informed that “Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.” In a later section of the decree, Hitler laid the foundation for abolishing the country’s federalist system and centralizing power in Berlin: “If in a state [regional government] the measures necessary for the restoration of public security and order are not taken, the Reich Government may temporarily take over the powers of the highest state authority.”

In March 1933, through various political maneuvers, Hitler successfully suppressed Communist, Socialist, and Catholic opposition to a proposed “Enabling Act,” which allowed the cabinet to introduce legislation without first going through parliament, thus by-passing constitutional review. The act would give the executive branch unprecedented power. Hitler’s regime designed the act as a temporary measure requiring reauthorization by the Reichstag every four years. Once the Nazis were the majority, reauthorization became perpetual. On March 23, 1933, the day votes were cast for the act, all of the Communist deputies and 26 Socialist deputies were missing, because they had either been arrested or had fled the country, according to Lucy S. Dawidowicz in The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945. When the vote was taken, 441 deputies voted in favor of the act, and all 94 of the Social Democrats present voted against it. Hitler now had legal authority for dictatorship. Five days later, with the announcement of a plan to silence complaints about Germany by Jews abroad, Hitler began his long-term campaign against the Jews, which began with the boycott of German businesses and later escalated to the murder of an estimated six million Jews.

Hitler’s rise to power is a sobering story of how a crisis and calls for quick solutions can tempt citizens and leaders to subvert the rule of law and ignore a country’s constitutional safeguards. Adolf Hitler swore to protect Germany’s constitution, yet he pursued expanded “temporary” executive power that circumvented due process for the sake of the “safety” and “protection” of the people. Germany’s descent into totalitarianism is yet another example of how calls to concentrate decision making in the executive branches, as we now see all over the world, too easily set the stage for political, social, and moral evil. On this dark anniversary, it would serve us well to remember that among the best protections citizens have against tyranny and oppression is insistence that all, including politicians, be held accountable to the same laws and that due process is always honored. These guarantees should be part of a system where decision making is dispersed, not concentrated, because, as Lord Acton reminds us, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolutely power corrupts absolutely.”

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Dr. Anthony Bradley is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York City where he also serves as director for the Center for the Study of Human Flourishing. Since 2002, Dr. Bradley has been a research fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, a Masters in Ethics and Society from Fordham University, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.