National Socialism (1933 - 1945)

Photographic record of the 'Day of Potsdam': Chancellor Adolf Hitler greets Paul von Hindenburg, President of the Reich, on 21 March 1933

Photographic record of the 'Day of Potsdam': Chancellor Adolf Hitler greets Paul von Hindenburg, President of the Reich, on 21 March 1933 (picture-alliance / akg-images)

The parliamentary system of the Weimar Republic had already been undermined before 30 January 1933, the day on which President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of the Reich. Hitler had commended himself to the elite conservative circles that shared his distaste for the Republic, not least through his desire to replace the parliamentary system with an authoritarian monocratic state or Führerstaat. Like the chancellors of the preceding presidential cabinets, Hitler prevailed upon Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag on 1 February 1933 and call a general election. The Reichstag fire on the night of 27 to 28 February 1933 provided a welcome pretext for the enactment of the Presidential Order for the Protection of the Nation and the State, commonly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended the fundamental individual rights enshrined in the Weimar Constitution ‘until further notice’; in fact, they remained in abeyance until the end of the Third Reich.

The Enabling Act

In spite of the reign of terror and the first wave of arrests of Communists, Social Democrats and trade unionists, in the Reichstag elections of 5 March 1933 the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) obtained 12.3% of the vote and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) 18.3%, while the moderate centre-right parties, namely the Centre Party and the Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), polled 13.9%. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) and the German National People’s Party (DNVP) won 43.9% and 8% of the vote respectively, and so together they formed a right-wing government. By means of the Enabling Act - officially entitled the ‘Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich’ - Hitler intended to free himself from all parliamentary scrutiny, but he needed the support of a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag to enact such legislation. The 81 elected Members from the KPD did not take part in the vote, since they were already either under arrest or had gone into hiding or exile. While 94 Members from the SPD braved intimidation by voting against the bill, the Centre Party, the BVP, the German State Party (DStP), the Christian Social People’s Service (CSVD), the German Peasants’ Party (DBP) and the Agricultural League (Landbund) joined the DNVP and the NSDAP in approving the Enabling Act. The Act empowered the Government to enact laws without the consent of Parliament, even if they were inconsistent with the Constitution of the Reich. In this way the Reichstag downgraded itself from a legislative body to an acclamatory auditorium.

The Führerstaat

Very soon, on 31 March 1933, the Government adopted, without parliamentary involvement, the Act Establishing the Identity of the Länder with the Reich (Gesetz über die Gleichschaltung der Länder mit dem Reich), which abolished the autonomous rights of the Länder, replacing them with stringent centralised rule. Ten months later, the Reich Restructuring Act (Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reichs) dissolved the parliaments of the Länder. This was followed on 14 February 1934 by the dissolution of the Reichsrat, the national representative assembly of the Länder. In the summer of 1934, another crucial step was taken towards the establishment of the ‘Führer state’ with the Night of the Long Knives at the end of June and the beginning of July, when Hitler had troublesome rivals removed from the political scene or murdered. Following Hindenburg’s death on 2 August 1934, a law  amalgamating the offices of President and Chancellor - likewise adopted without parliamentary approval - enabled Hitler to assume the title of ‘Leader and Chancellor of the Reich’ (Führer und Reichskanzler). He also became commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, whose members henceforth swore an oath of allegiance to him personally and no longer to the Weimar Constitution.

The Reichstag as a ‘one-party parliament’

After the adoption of the Enabling Act, the Reichstag only ever met on 19 occasions. It adopted seven laws, compared with 986 enacted by the Government. By the time of the Reichstag election of 12 November 1933, voters were already being presented with a single list of candidates whom they could approve or reject en bloc. Through the withdrawal of the mandates of Communist and Social Democrat members and the defection of representatives of the middle-class parties to the NSDAP, the Reichstag ultimately developed into a one-party parliament, whose members had to swear allegiance to the Führer. The insignificance of the parliament contrasted with the fact that a parliamentary seat carried great prestige and provided ample financial security, with which long-serving and distinguished party officials of the NSDAP were rewarded. The status attached to Parliament by the National Socialists is also reflected in the fact that the Reichstag building was never restored as a venue for plenary sittings. Instead, Parliament met in the Kroll Opera House, which had staged its last performance in 1931.

The end of parliamentary activity

The sole parliamentary group was chaired by Wilhelm Frick, the NSDAP’s national returning officer, who had been Minister of the Interior in Hitler’s cabinet since 30 January 1933. Other Reichstag bodies were successively abolished. Although committees were appointed in accordance with Article 35 of the Weimar Constitution as late as December 1933, they were no longer convened. After the Reichstag elections of 29 March 1936 and 10 April 1938, the appointment of committees was also dispensed with. Hitler, however, set great store by the legitimacy of apparent plebiscitary approval, which was used to underpin the ritualistic propaganda attaching to each of his policy statements. Even though the first ‘Great German Reichstag’ after the annexation of Austria adopted neither a new constitution nor any other legislation, Hitler described that Parliament as the “representation of the German people”, which could “lay claim to being regarded as a truly constituent body”. At the last sitting of the Reichstag, on 26 April 1942, its members showed that they had entirely forsworn all of their rights. By rising from their seats, they approved a resolution of the Reichstag drafted by Hans Heinrich Lammers and read out by Hermann Göring, which stated that “the Führer, in his capacity as leader of the nation […], must therefore be able at any time - without being bound by existing legal provisions - to prevail if necessary upon all Germans […], by every means he deems appropriate, to fulfil their obligations”.