Jan. 30, 1933 The Story behind Hitler's Rise to Power
Part 4: Absolute Power
Hitler had made it -- but he was still far from the dictator he would become. Indeed, his first government only included two ministers from the NSDAP, Hermann Göring as minister without portfolio and Wilhelm Frick as interior minister. But he wanted more; priority number one for his new government was the dissolution of the Reichstag and, yet again, new elections. His goal was clear, and it was one shared by much of the country's political elite: Once the Nazis and their allies had a majority, the Reichstag was to hand over power to the chancellor. In short, Hitler wanted parliament to vote itself out of existence.
Once again, luck seemed to be on Hitler's side. On February 27, less than a week before the new elections, the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building, was set ablaze. The blame was pinned on Dutch bricklayer Marinus van der Lubbe, and indeed, after decades of research into the incident, no convincing proof has been unearthed to show that he wasn't acting alone. But Hitler, Göring and Goebbels knew a propaganda godsend when they saw one. "If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, then we need to crush this murderous plague with an iron fist," Hitler told his vice chancellor, von Papen.
And crush they did. The day after the fire, the "decree for the protection of people and the state" went into effect, allowing Hitler's Nazis to go after their political enemies with gusto. It was the wave of arrests set off by the Reichstag fire that ultimately made the rapid construction of prisons necessary. Many of those prisons would later become concentration camps.
On election day in 1933 -- the last halfway free elections to take place in unified Germany until 1990 -- the Nazis won 43.9 percent of the vote.
The result still wasnt enough for the party to control its own destiny. But by then, it was already too late to matter. When the fateful parliamentary session was called to order on March 23, 1933 at just after 2 p.m., fully 107 representatives from the Social Democrats and the Communists were missing. Many of them were behind bars, while others were too afraid to show up or had already disappeared into exile. Just to be on the safe side, the parliamentary president Hermann Göring elected not even to acknowledge the 81 seats controlled by the Communists, significantly reducing the number of parliamentary votes available to the opposition.
At 6:16 p.m., SPD leader Otto Wels stepped to the microphone. It was to be the final public defense of democracy in Germany before the country started down the path of genocide, war and ruin. Not long after Wels finished, and following an enraged speech by Hitler, 444 representatives voted for parliament to be stripped of power. There were just 94 votes against.
The Nazis wasted no time. On April 1, they organized a nationwide boycott of Jewish shops, doctors and lawyers. On April 25, the share of Jewish university students was set at 1.5 percent. On May 2, Germany's powerful labor unions were outlawed. On May 10, students in numerous cities across Germany joined together in an orgy of book burning, doing away with volumes disapproved of by the Nazis. On June 23, the SPD was banned.
But the final important date in Hitler's rise to complete dictatorial power came only in the summer of 1934. On August 2, President Paul von Hindenburg passed away. In the days preceding the old man's death, Hitler signed a decree abolishing the position of president. In its place, another was created: "Führer and Chancellor." Finally, all power in Germany was united in his hands.
Sixty-one months later, Germany invaded Poland. Soon thereafter, the Holocaust began. The result? Sixty million dead and a continent destroyed.