Enabling Act of 1933 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Enabling Act of 1933 ultimately doomed the Weimar Republic by granting Adolf Hitler unprecedented powers and lending his totalitarian ends the illusion of legitimacy.

Summary of Event

Only two months after becoming chancellor, Adolf Hitler sought a legal foundation for dictatorship by proposing the Act for Ending the Distress of People and Nation, commonly known as the Enabling Act. In five short paragraphs, this bill transferred key legislative powers held by the Reichstag, or parliament, to Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist (Nazi) Party Nazi Party for four years. Specifically, the act allowed Hitler and his cabinet to draft and pass laws without the Reichstag’s consent, to propose amendments to the constitution and even to suspend it, to control the national budget, and to enter into foreign treaties. Although it contained reassuring phrases about not curtailing the power of either President Paul von Hindenburg or the parliament, the bill actually enabled Hitler to bypass all opposition. Because it modified the Weimar Constitution, however, Hitler needed a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag to enact the bill, which meant that more than two-thirds of the deputies had to be present, and at least two-thirds of those present had to vote for it so that it could pass into law. [kw]Enabling Act of 1933 (Mar. 23, 1933) [kw]Act of 1933, Enabling (Mar. 23, 1933) Enabling Act (1933) Weimar Republic;Enabling Act (1933) [g]Germany;Mar. 23, 1933: Enabling Act of 1933[08320] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 23, 1933: Enabling Act of 1933[08320] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 23, 1933: Enabling Act of 1933[08320] Hitler, Adolf Hindenburg, Paul von Goebbels, Joseph Kaas, Ludwig Papen, Franz von Wels, Otto Göring, Hermann

The general elections of March 5, 1933, had given the Nazis 44 percent of the total vote and 288 out of the 647 seats in the Reichstag. After the elections, Hitler turned his attention to the task of obtaining the two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. First, he expelled the eighty-one Communist deputies: Those not arrested were threatened with arrest if they attempted to take their seats in the Reichstag. Second, Hitler persuaded the Center Party and the Nationalists to vote for the Enabling Act. The Center Party, under the leadership of Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, was pessimistic about blocking the bill and decided to support it in the hope of gaining Hitler’s consideration for its own Catholic interests. Hesitant to trust Hitler’s verbal pledge, however, the party demanded a written promise that Hitler would abide by the president’s power of veto. Kaas never received such an assurance from Hitler, but he accepted a letter from President Hindenburg stating that he had been assured by Hitler that the Enabling Act would not be used without prior consultation with the president. Thus Kaas made the same error as his fellow Center Party member Franz von Papen, who had agitated for Hitler’s installation after his own dismissal from the chancellorship because he hoped to share and profit from Hitler’s power.

To win the support of the Nationalists and the army, Hitler and his newly appointed minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, staged a well-planned ceremony in the Garrison Church at Potsdam. The ceremony was held on March 21 to mark the opening of the new Reichstag, two days before it was to consider the Enabling Act. Hitler and Goebbels selected Potsdam, the royal residence of the Hohenzollerns and seat of their dynasty (the Second Reich, which ruled Brandenburg-Prussia from 1415-1918 and imperial Germany from 1871 to 1918) and the Garrison Church, which housed the grave of Frederick the Great, to symbolically marry the past glories of Prussia to the new Nazi regime. Even the date of the ceremony had significance: Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the German empire, had opened the first Reichstag on March 21, 1871.

At noon, Hitler entered the church beside the fading, eighty-six-year-old Hindenburg, who endorsed the simple former corporal’s new government to the crowd; Hitler’s own speech emphasized the national renewal evident since he had taken office. The two men’s handclasp at the climax of the ceremony convinced many that Hitler stood for a restoration of the old order in Germany. The success of Hitler’s policy was demonstrated when the Reichstag convened two days later in the Kroll Opera House in Berlin to vote on the Enabling Act. The building was surrounded by belligerent SS and SA troops. Hitler opened the session with a speech notable for its restraint: He pointed out that the new powers would be used only to carry out vital measures and that such occasions were unlikely to occur very often.

Significance

The only deputy to speak out against the bill was Otto Wels, leader of the Social Democrats. Amid the menacing jeers of swastika-waving storm troopers, Wels began a speech condemning the Nazis’ gangster mentality, but he was soon interrupted by Hitler. Infuriated by Wels’s opposition, Hitler threw off all restraint. After savagely attacking the Social Democrats, he told them that he did not need their votes: Germany would be free, he said, and its freedom would come despite the Social Democrats’ efforts. Moreover, Hitler reminded Wels, the Nazis had merely observed legal niceties by seeking Reichstag approval for something that they could and would readily have taken through extralegal means, if necessary.

Despite this clue about Hitler’s ruthlessness, the Enabling Act passed by a huge majority: 441 votes for and 94 votes against. The opposition votes were cast by the Social Democrats. When Hermann Göring, president of the Reichstag and Hitler’s trusted henchman, made the votes known, the Nazi deputies sprang to their feet and sang the Nazi anthem, “Die Fahne Hoch” (also called the “Horst Wessel” song), while giving the Nazi salute. The Nazis had reason to be happy: Their leader had just freed himself from dependency on the Reichstag and the president. Hitler could now issues decrees without the president’s approval, even if such legislation modified the Weimar Constitution. A provision introduced by Hindenburg on January 31, 1933, technically limited the Enabling Act’s legislative powers to the particular cabinet in office, but Hitler soon flouted this restriction. He also seized on Hindenburg’s death on August 1, 1934, using the event as a pretext for fusing the presidency and chancellorship and justifying his growing power by saying that Hindenburg’s will had named him successor. Enabling Act (1933) Weimar Republic;Enabling Act (1933)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bracher, Karl Dietrich. “The Technique of Nationalist Socialist Seizure of Power.” In The Path to Dictatorship, 1918-1933, edited by Theodor Eschenburg et al. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966. The author analyzes how the concept of “legal revolution” led to the middle-class parties’ naïve trust in Hitler and their consequent passage of the Enabling Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill & Wang, 2000. Not as accessible as Evans, but a thorough investigation of the rise of Nazism and the construction of the Enabling Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. A work of impressive and engaging scholarship that includes an in-depth discussion of the Enabling Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fischer, Klaus P. Nazi Germany: A New History. New York: Continuum, 1995. Fischer’s masterful study stresses the Nazi cynicism and terrorism underlying both the Potsdam ceremony and the ratification of the Enabling Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamann, Brigitte. Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Focuses on Hitler’s years in Vienna and how his experiences there influenced him. Includes photographs, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Richard F. Who Voted for Hitler? Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Controversial book rejects the traditional centrist argument—that of the support for Hitler among the dominant lower-middle classes—and suggests alternative explanations for the Nazi rise to power.
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    xlink:type="simple">Hoffmann, Peter. The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945. Translated by Richard Barry. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977. Convincingly argues that the lack of meaningful opposition to Hitler’s pseudolegal seizure of power was rooted in terrorism, ignorance and denial about Nazi values, and weak democracy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. A comprehensive and well-documented examination of Hitler’s rise to power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krausnick, Helmut. “Stages of ’Co-ordination.’” In The Path to Dictatorship, edited by Theodor Eschenburg et al. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966. Krausnick views the Enabling Act as a decisive step in the “coordination” of German institutions to Hitler’s will, second only to the February 28, 1933, decree suspending basic constitutional rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Redlich, Fritz. Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Although mainly a behavioral study, this book does focus some attention on the Enabling Act as a psychological milestone in the Nazi dictator’s obsessive quest for power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960. Shirer’s account of the Enabling Act emphasizes Hitler’s manipulation of Prussian patriotism—and the Social Democrats’ weakness—in bringing the nation under the Nazi’s control.

Beer Hall Putsch

Mein Kampf Outlines Nazi Thought

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Reichstag Fire

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

Great Blood Purge

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss

Munich Conference

Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact

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