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The  Enabling  Act  of  1933



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This article is about the German law passed in 1933 at the beginning of the Third Reich. For other laws of that name, see Enabling act.

The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz in German) was passed by Germany's parliament (the Reichstag) on March 23, 1933 and signed by President Paul von Hindenburg the same day. It was the second major step after the Reichstag Fire Decree through which the democratically-elected Nazis obtained dictatorial powers using largely legal means. The Act enabled Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his cabinet to enact laws without the participation of the Reichstag.

The formal name of the Enabling Act was Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich ("Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Nation").


(German language for each section of the following Enabling Act is found on Wikipedia's link above.)

Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Empire

 The Reichstag has enacted the following law, which is hereby proclaimed with the assent of the Reichsrat, it having been established that the requirements for a constitutional amendment have been fulfilled:

In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the constitution.[1]

Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain undisturbed.

Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor and announced in the Reich Gazette. They shall take effect on the day following the announcement, unless they prescribe a different date. Articles 68 to 77 of the Constitution do not apply to laws enacted by the Reich government.[2]

Treaties of the Reich with foreign states which affect matters of Reich legislation shall not require the approval of the bodies of the legislature. The government of the Reich shall issue the regulations required for the execution of such treaties.

 This law takes effect with the day of its proclamation. It loses force on 1 April 1937 or if the present Reich government is replaced by another.



  1. ^ Article 85 outlined the process by which the Reichstag and Reichsrat approved the Reich budget. Article 87 restricted government borrowing.
  2. ^ Articles 68 to 77 stipulated the procedures for enacting legislation in the Reichstag.

The Enabling Act was passed by the Reichstag on March 23 and proclaimed by the government the following day. Following constitutional procedure for legislation, the law was countersigned by President von Hindenburg, Chancellor Hitler, Minister of Interior Frick, Foreign Minister von Neurath, and Minister of Finance von Krosigk.


March 1933 election

Within 24 hours of being appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Hitler withdrew from the coalition of centrist parties and asked President von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag. A general election was scheduled for March 5, 1933. This campaign was one of the first times the mass media was a major force in an election[citation needed] and was skillfully used to influence the outcome by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who wrote:

Now it will be easy to carry on the fight, for we can call on all the resources of the State. Radio and press are at our disposal. We shall stage a masterpiece of propaganda.[3]

In the days leading up to the elections, the Nazis organized street violence to intimidate the opposition and to promote fear of communism. The burning of the Reichstag six days before the election was the pivotal event of the campaign. The mentally disturbed one-time Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested in the building and, while the circumstances of the fire are disputed and will never be conclusively known, the fire was portrayed by the Nazis as the beginning of a communist revolution. With the threat of communism looming, Hitler's government persuaded President Paul von Hindenburg to authorize several emergency powers in the Reichstag Fire Decree, which (among other things) suspended civil liberties and habeas corpus rights. The Decree enabled Hitler to have the Communist Party's offices raided and its representatives arrested, effectively eliminating them as a political force.

Although receiving five million more votes than in the previous election, and counting the 52 seats won by the National People's Party, Hitler had only a slim majority - not enough to gain absolute power.


Centre Party support

At Hitler's first post-election cabinet meeting on March 15, the cabinet began drawing up plans to obtain absolute power in a constitutional way. Hitler decided upon the proposal of an "enabling act" that would give the cabinet legislative power for four years. The Reichstag Fire Decree had already given the government the power to arrest opposition delegates. The Nazis devised the Enabling Act to gain complete political power without the need of the support of a majority in the Reichstag and without the need to bargain with their coalition partners.

The Act essentially allowed the chancellor and his cabinet to enact legislation without the Reichstag, including changes to the constitution. Both the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD) were expected to vote against such an act, but the Nazis knew that the parties representing the middle class, the Junker landowners and business interests had grown weary of the instability of the Weimar Republic and were therefore likely to vote for the measure. Hitler felt certain that he could convince the Catholic Centre Party to give their support to the act and provide the needed two-thirds majority.[citation needed]

Hitler negotiated with the Centre Party's chairman, Ludwig Kaas, a Catholic priest, finalizing an agreement by March 22. Kaas agreed to support the Act in exchange for the Nazi's promise to help them achieve civil recognition of Catholics and Catholicism, as well as instituting quotas and protections for Catholic civil servants and schools. The Centre Party also asked Hitler to maintain constitutional protections of civil liberties.

Historians, notably Klaus Scholder, have maintained that a key reason for the leadership of the Centre Party agreeing to support the Enabling Act was a promise from Hitler to negotiate the Reichskonkordat with the Vatican, a treaty that formalised the position of the Catholic church in Germany. Kaas was a close associate of Cardinal Pacelli, then Vatican Secretary of State (and later Pope Pius XII), who had been pursuing a German concordat as a key policy for some years.

According to Klaus Scholder, a Reichskonkordat was in fact impossible under the Weimar Republic: "as long as this democratic republic existed in Germany a Reich concordat was inconceivable." Catholic parties would never have sufficient strength to get a treaty past Protestant and socialist opposition. It was thus the establishment of Hitler's dictatorship with the Enabling Act that allowed the concordat to become a real possibility, following the model of the Lateran treaties with fascist Italy where the Church had agreed to abstain from political activity in return for recognition in a concordat.[4]

Scholder argues that Kaas "probably acted as the key go-between" between Hitler and the Vatican. [5]. The day after the Enabling Act vote Kaas went to Rome in order to, in his own words, "investigate the possibilities for a comprehensive understanding between church and state,"[6] and the first official mention of the concordat was made when Kaas returned ten days later, on April 2.


Debate within the Centre Party continued until March 23, when ex-chancellor Heinrich Brüning denounced the Enabling Act as treachery of the worst order, calling for the Reichstag's assembly to be postponed. Kaas nevertheless claimed a written guarantee would come from Hitler. Brüning's experiences with Hitler led him to warn Kaas to ensure he received the written promise before the vote, but agreed to maintain party discipline by voting for the Act.

Later that day, the Reichstag assembled under intimidating circumstances, with SA men swarming inside and outside the chamber. Hitler's speech, which emphasised the importance of Christianity in German culture, was aimed particularly at appeasing the Centre Party's sensibilities and almost incorporated Kaas' requested guarantees. Kaas gave a speech, voicing the Centre's support for the bill amid "concerns put aside", while Brüning notably remained silent. Only Otto Wels of the SPD spoke against the Act. Kaas had still not received the written constitutional guarantees he had negotiated, but with the assurance it was being "typed up", voting began. Kaas never received the letter.

All parties except the SPD voted in favour of the Enabling Act. With the Communist delegates removed and 26 SPD deputies arrested or in hiding, the final vote was 441 supporting the Enabling Act to 94 (all Social Democrats) opposed. With 83% of the delegates voting in favour of the Enabling Act it became law. With the passage of the Act, the Reichstag was effectively eliminated from active participation in German politics thus giving Hitler's cabinet the power to rule by decree.


While there had been previous enabling acts in the earliest years of the Weimar Republic, this one was more far reaching since Article 2 allowed for deviations from the constitution. The law therefore formally required a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. Hitler had taken care of that: under the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Communist Party deputies — and a few Social Democratic deputies as well — were already jailed, and the Communist mandates were declared "dormant" by the government shortly after the elections. The Social Democrats at first had planned to hinder the passing of the law by boycotting the Reichstag session, rendering the body short of the two-thirds quorum needed for the vote, but led by Reichstag president Hermann Goering, the body changed its rules of procedure to allow the Reichstag president to declare any deputy "absent without excuse" to be considered as present in order to forestall obstruction. Because of this procedural change, the Social Democrats were forced to participate in the session and their chairman Otto Wels delivered a speech against the Enabling Act. The remaining free members of parliament were intimidated by the SA surrounding the parliament hall. In the end, only the Social Democrats voted against the bill.

During the negotiations between the government and the Centre Party, it was agreed that the government should inform the Reichstag parties of legislative measures passed under the Enabling Act. For this purpose, a second working committee was set up, chaired by Hitler and the Centre's chairman Kaas. However, this committee met only three times without any major impact.

President von Hindenburg seemed to be pleased with Hitler's firm hand. During the cabinet conference on the Enabling Act, von Hindenburg's representative stated that the aged president was withdrawing from day-to-day affairs of government and that presidential collaboration on the laws decreed as a result of the Enabling Act would not be required.

Though the Act had formally given legislative powers to the government as a whole, these powers were for all intents and purposes exercised by Hitler himself; as Joseph Goebbels wrote shortly after the passage of the Enabling Act:

The authority of the Führer has now been wholly established. Votes are no longer taken. The Führer decides. All this is going much faster than we had dared to hope.

Formal cabinet meetings were rare during the whole Third Reich and non-existent during World War II.

It is indicative of the care that Hitler took to give his dictatorship an appearance of legality that the Enabling Act was formally extended twice by the Reichstag (by then a puppet of Hitler) beyond its original 1937 expiration date.

The passage of the Enabling Act reduced the Reichstag to a mere stage for Hitler's speeches. The opposition parties were suppressed or banned, and eventually even the parties making up Hitler's coalition yielded to government pressure and dissolved themselves. On July 14, 1933 the government decreed a law eliminating political parties other than the Nazi Party. By this, Hitler had fulfilled what he had promised in earlier campaign speeches: "I set for myself one aim ... to sweep these thirty parties out of Germany!".



  1. ^ Article 85 outlined the process by which the Reichstag and Reichsrat approved the Reich budget. Article 87 restricted government borrowing.
  2. ^ Articles 68 to 77 stipulated the procedures for enacting legislation in the Reichstag.
  3. ^ Shirer, William L. (1959). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-62420-2. 
  4. ^ Klaus Scholder "The Churches and the Third Reich" volume 1 pp 160-1
  5. ^ Klaus Scholder "The Churches and the Third Reich" volume 1 p241
  6. ^ letter from Kaas to von Bergen, German ambassador to the Vatican, translation as quoted in Scholder p. 247


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