It has been known, at least since World War I, that public opinion is important and, since World War II, that it is manageable. In the case of the latter I am thinking especially of Hitler's creation of a Cabinet level Propaganda Ministry (ProMi) and its leader, Dr. Joseph Goebbels.
It is an observed fact that no organized, publicly visible, non-terrorist opposition to the Nazi state appeared after about 1935 and it is interesting to trace the conversion of the democratic, and indeed much more democratic than the American, Weimar Republic into its opposite, the Third Reich. In the process we may note some interesting parallels with the events in America since 9-11.
Germany was a parliamentary democracy with a President with no legislative power. The government was headed by a Chancellor elected by the Reichstag which voted along party lines. The number of parties in the Reichstag with at least 10 percent of the seats was at least 5 with several smaller parties sharing another 25 percent of the seats. This guaranteed coalition governments among parties with some degree of ideological affinity and gave the voters a wide political choice. It was in fact the essence of democracy and was certainly what its writers, who were constitutional scholars, intended. In the event that the Reichstag could not agree on a Chancellor, Article 48 of the Constitution gave the President the power to appoint one. The Chancellor, when necessary, could originate emergency legislation which, when countersigned by the President under his Article 48 powers, would then become law.
Beginning in the early '30's, as Germany plunged into the world wide depression and this crisis began to be mirrored within the Reichstag, the President, Paul von Hindenburg, began to make increasing use of his Article 48 powers. In January 1933 the latest emergency government under Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher resigned and the President, acting on the urging of the business and financial elite, appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor along with a conservative cabinet that was supposed to keep him in check while taking advantage of his popularity. A stipulation of the creation of this government was that national elections were to be held within two months. They were scheduled for March 5, 1933.
The Nazi Party now began to use all the means at its disposal as a party in power in a life and death struggle to achieve a Reichstag majority in the upcoming elections. The backdrop for this struggle was the fact that in the preceding four Reichstag elections the seats won by the combined Communist (KPD) and Socialist parties were 42, 38, 37, and 37 percent while the Nazi Party won 2, 19, 38, and 33 percent. The perception was that the Nazis had had a meteoric rise, had peaked, and were now in a decline. If this trend were continued in the new election the Nazis would become just another minority party which had participated in a short-lived Presidential emergency Government with no future.
Here is where the hand of fate intervened. Shortly after 9 PM in the evening of February 27, 1933 a fire was set in the Reichstag building by a 24 year old Dutch man, allegedly a former member of the Dutch Communist Party, by the name of Marinus van der Lubbe. Today this would be called a terrorist act. The Government immediately released the story that the "Reichstag Fire" had been set by the German Communist Party (KPD) and was the signal for a general uprising, neither of which were true.
|Reichstag fire: 02-27-33|
The election went on as scheduled. Despite the inability of the KPD to campaign and heavy harassment of Communist voters the KPD got 4.848 million votes, winning 81 seats in the Reichstag. The Socialist Party (SPD) got 7.182 million votes and 120 seats and the Nazis got 17.277 million votes and 288 seats. To the government's embarrassment it had only 44 percent of the votes in the Reichstag but by the simple expedient of denying the elected Communist deputies their seats, on the grounds that the party had been declared illegal, the Nazis had their majority and could thus claim to be a popularly elected government. The almost 5 million voters who voted for the KPD were instantly disenfranchised.
On March 9th three Bulgarian Communists residing in Germany, Georgi Dimitroff, Blago Popov, and Vassil Tanev were arrested and indicted as co-conspirators in setting the fire. In the subsequent trial Dimitroff, Popov, and Tanev were acquitted. Only van der Lubbe was found guilty and he was executed in 1934. This draconian sentence, especially in light of his behavior in the courtroom suggesting he was not competent to stand trial, is indicative of the fear and hysteria which prevailed in the country.
On March 21st the Reichstag met in the Kroll Opera House in Berlin to vote on the Enabling Act submitted by the government which authorized it to take any measures it deemed necessary for the protection of the country for a period of four years. In other words it was the legal authorization for the dictatorship. The Socialist deputies were the only ones to vote against it and it passed. Germany had its Fascist dictatorship.
From this point in time Hitler rapidly eliminated all sources of opposition. Most of the Communists were in concentration camps within weeks. The party's property was confiscated at the end of May. On May 10th the Socialist Party's property was confiscated. The Center and Right wing parties, deeming themselves irrelevant in the crisis, simply dissolved themselves. By the end of 1933 the labor unions had been smashed and replaced by the official German Labor Front. On October 14th Germany withdrew from the London Disarmament Conference and on the 21st it withdrew from the League of Nations. On August 2, 1934 President Hindenburg died and Hitler combined that office in his own person. The cabinet which was supposed to control Hitler was eliminated. Hitler began a massive rearmament and public works program which solved the unemployment problem and restored corporate profit levels.
The world had less than five years of peace left. Within 11 years and 3 days some 50 million people would die violently, some from the force, heat, and radiation sickness from a type of explosion never before seen on the earth. Mankind was moved to a new level of barbarism where civilians were deliberately targeted or their death and injury was routinely justified as "collateral damage." And the earth would never be the same again.