Enabling Act of 1933
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The Enabling Act (German: Ermächtigungsgesetz) was a 1933 amendment to the Weimar Constitution that gave the German Cabinet – in effect, Chancellor Adolf Hitler – the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. It passed in both the Reichstag and Reichsrat on 23 March 1933, and was signed by President Paul von Hindenburg later that day. The act stated that it was to last four years unless renewed by the Reichstag, which occurred twice. For all intents and purposes, the Enabling Act gave Hitler plenary powers and made him the dictator of Germany. It followed on the heels of the Reichstag Fire Decree, which abolished most civil liberties and transferred state powers to the Reich government. The combined effect of these two bills was to bring the Weimar Republic to an end.
The formal name of the Enabling Act was Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (English: "Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich"). This legislation was ostensibly passed at the Kroll Opera House, where the legislators were surrounded by, and threatened by, Nazi troops. The Communists had already been banned and were therefore not present and not able to vote, while several Social Democrats were kept away as well. In the end, nearly all the parties present voted for the act, with the Social Democrats being the only ones voting against.1
As with most of the laws passed in the process of Gleichschaltung, the Enabling Act is quite short, considering its consequences for Germany. It is therefore reproduced here in full in German2 and English:
|Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich||Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich|
|Der Reichstag hat das folgende Gesetz beschlossen, das mit Zustimmung des Reichsrats hiermit verkündet wird, nachdem festgestellt ist, daß die Erfordernisse verfassungsändernder Gesetzgebung erfüllt sind:||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:|
|Artikel 1||Article 1|
|Reichsgesetze können außer in dem in der Reichsverfassung vorgesehenen Verfahren auch durch die Reichsregierung beschlossen werden. Dies gilt auch für die in den Artikeln 85 Abs. 2 und 87 der Reichsverfassung bezeichneten Gesetze.||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.3|
|Artikel 2||Article 2|
|Die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Reichsgesetze können von der Reichsverfassung abweichen, soweit sie nicht die Einrichtung des Reichstags und des Reichsrats als solche zum Gegenstand haben. Die Rechte des Reichspräsidenten bleiben unberührt.||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.|
|Artikel 3||Article 3|
|Die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Reichsgesetze werden vom Reichskanzler ausgefertigt und im Reichsgesetzblatt verkündet. Sie treten, soweit sie nichts anderes bestimmen, mit dem auf die Verkündung folgenden Tage in Kraft. Die Artikel 68 bis 77 der Reichsverfassung finden auf die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Gesetze keine Anwendung.||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.4|
|Artikel 4||Article 4|
|Verträge des Reiches mit fremden Staaten, die sich auf Gegenstände der Reichsgesetzgebung beziehen, bedürfen für die Dauer der Geltung dieser Gesetze nicht der Zustimmung der an der Gesetzgebung beteiligten Körperschaften. Die Reichsregierung erläßt die zur Durchführung dieser Verträge erforderlichen Vorschriften.||Treaties of the Reich with foreign states, which relate to matters of Reich legislation shall for the duration of the validity of these laws not require the consent of the Reichstag. The Reich government shall adopt the necessary legislation to implement these agreements.|
In his speech before the Reichstag on 23 March 1933, just before the Enabling Act is passed, Adolf Hitler speaks out:
By its decision to carry out the political and moral cleansing of our public life, the Government is creating and securing the conditions for a really deep and inner religious life. The advantages for the individual which may be derived from compromises with atheistic organizations do not compare in any way with the consequences which are visible in the destruction of our common religious and ethical values.
The Government will treat all other denominations with objective and impartial justice. It cannot, however, tolerate allowing membership of a certain denomination or of a certain race being used as a release from all common legal obligations, or as a blank cheque for unpunishable behavior, or for the toleration of crimes. [The national Government will allow and confirm to the Christian denominations the enjoyment of their due influence in schools and education.] And it will be concerned for the sincere cooperation between Church and State.
The struggle against the materialistic ideology and for the erection of a true people's community (Volksgemeinschaft) serves as much the interests of the German nation as of our Christian faith. ...The national Government, seeing in Christianity the unshakable foundation of the moral and ethical life of our people, attaches utmost importance to the cultivation and maintenance of the friendliest relations with the Holy See. ...The rights of the churches will not be curtailed; their position in relation to the State will not be changed.5
After being appointed chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Hitler asked President von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag. A general election was scheduled for March 5, 1933.
The burning of the Reichstag six days before the election, depicted by the Nazis as the beginning of a communist revolution, resulted in the Reichstag Fire Decree, which (among other things) suspended civil liberties and habeas corpus rights. Hitler used the decree 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, the Nazis had failed to gain an absolute majority in parliament, depending on the 52 seats won by their coalition partner, the German National People's Party, for a slim majority.
To free himself from this dependency, Hitler had the cabinet, in its first post-election meeting on 15 March, draw up plans for an Enabling Act which would give the cabinet legislative power for four years. 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 Enabling Act allowed the cabinet to enact legislation, including laws deviating from or altering the constitution, without the consent of the Reichstag. Because this law allowed for departures from the constitution, it was itself considered a constitutional amendment and thus its adoption required a two-thirds majority, with at least two-thirds of deputies attending the session.
The Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD) were expected to vote against the Act. The government had already arrested all Communist and some Social Democrat deputies under the Reichstag Fire Decree. The Nazis expected the parties representing the middle class, the Junkers and business interests to vote for the measure, as they had grown weary of the instability of the Weimar Republic and would not dare to resist.
Hitler believed that with the Centre Party members' votes, he would get the necessary two-thirds majority. Hitler negotiated with the Centre Party's chairman, Ludwig Kaas, a Catholic priest, finalising an agreement by 22 March. Kaas agreed to support the Act in exchange for assurances of the Centre Party's continued existence, the protection of Catholics' civil and religious liberties, religious schools and the retention of civil servants affiliated with the Centre Party. It has also been suggested that some members of the SPD were intimidated by the presence of the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) throughout the proceedings.6
Some historians, such as Klaus Scholder, have maintained that Hitler also promised to negotiate a Reichskonkordat with the Holy See, a treaty that formalised the position of the Catholic Church in Germany on a national level. Kaas was a close associate of Cardinal Pacelli, then Vatican Secretary of State (and later Pope Pius XII). Pacelli had been pursuing a German concordat as a key policy for some years but the instability of Weimar governments as well as the enmity of some parties to such a treaty rendered the project moot.7 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".8 However, so far no evidence for a link between the Enabling Act and the Reichskonkordat signed on 20 July 1933 has surfaced.
Debate within the Centre Party continued until the day of the vote, 23 March 1933, with Kaas advocating voting in favour of the act, referring to an upcoming written guarantee from Hitler, while former Chancellor Heinrich Brüning called for a rejection of the Act. The majority sided with Kaas, and Brüning agreed to maintain party discipline by voting for the Act.9
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats initially planned to hinder the passage of the Act by boycotting the Reichstag session, rendering that body short of the quorum (two thirds) needed to vote on a constitutional amendment. The Reichstag, however, led by its President, Hermann Göring, changed its rules of procedure, allowing the President to declare that any deputy who was "absent without excuse" was to be considered as present, in order to overcome obstructions. Because of this procedural change, the Social Democrats were obliged to attend the session, and committed to voting against the Act. Leaving nothing to chance, the Nazis used the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to detain several SPD deputies. A few others saw the writing on the wall and fled into exile.
Later that day, the Reichstag assembled under intimidating circumstances, with SA men swarming inside and outside the chamber.9 Hitler's speech, which emphasised the importance of Christianity in German culture, was aimed particularly at appeasing the Centre Party's sensibilities and incorporated Kaas' requested guarantees almost verbatim. Kaas gave a speech, voicing the Centre's support for the bill amid "concerns put aside", while Brüning notably remained silent.
Only SPD chairman Otto Wels spoke against the Act, declaring that the proposed bill could not "destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible." 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.9
At this stage, the majority of deputies already supported the bill, and any deputies who might have been reluctant to vote in favour were intimidated by the SA troops surrounding the meeting. In the end, all parties except the SPD voted in favour of the Enabling Act. The non-socialist parties all voted for the bill, except for two deputies who weren't present. With the KPD banned and 26 SPD deputies arrested or in hiding, the final tally was 444 in favour of Enabling Act against 84 (all Social Democrats) opposed. The Reichstag had adopted the Enabling Act with the support of 83% of the deputies. However, the atmosphere of that session was so intimidating that even if all SPD deputies had been present, it would have still passed with 78.7% support. After the Reichsrat also gave its approval, the Act was signed into law.
Under the Act, the government had acquired the authority to pass laws without either parliamentary consent or control. Unprecedentedly, these laws could (with certain exceptions) even deviate from the Constitution. For this reason, the Enabling Act, combined with the Reichstag Fire Decree, transformed Hitler's government into a legal dictatorship.
The Act effectively eliminated the Reichstag as active players in German politics. While its existence was protected by the Enabling Act, for all intents and purposes it reduced the Reichstag to a mere stage for Hitler's speeches. It only met sporadically until the end of World War II, held no debates and enacted only a few laws. Within three months after the passage of the Enabling Act, all parties except the Nazi Party were banned or pressured into dissolving themselves, followed on 14 July by a law that made the Nazi Party the only legally permitted party in the country. With 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!" However, for all intents and purposes Germany became a one-party state since the passage of the Enabling Act.
The Act also effectively removed Presidential oversight, as Hindenburg's representative had 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.
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 working committee was set up, co-chaired by Hitler and Centre Party chairman Kaas. However, this committee met only three times without any major impact and rapidly became a dead letter.
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. After its passage, there were no longer serious deliberations in Cabinet meetings. Its meetings became more and more infrequent after 1934, and was never convened after 1938.
Due to the great care that Hitler took to give his dictatorship an appearance of legality, the Enabling Act was renewed twice, in 1937 and 1941. However, its renewal was practically assured since all other parties were banned. Voters were presented with a single list of Nazis and Nazi-approved "guest" candidates under far-from secret conditions. In 1942, the Reichstag passed a law giving Hitler power of life and death over every citizen, effectively extending the provisions of the Enabling Act for the duration of the war.9
Ironically, two, and possibly three, of the penultimate measures Hitler took to consolidate his power in 1934 violated the Enabling Act. In February 1934, the Reichsrat, representing the states, was abolished even though Article 2 of the Enabling Act specifically protected the existence of that chamber. It can be argued that the Enabling Act had been breached two weeks earlier by the Law for the Reconstruction of the Reich, which transferred the states' powers to the Reich and effectively left the Reichsrat impotent. A few months later, Hindenburg died, and Hitler seized the president's powers for himself in accordance with a law passed the previous day. Article 2 stated that the president's powers were to remain "undisturbed," which has long been interpreted to mean that it forbade Hitler from tampering with the presidency. A 1932 amendment to the constitution made the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, first in the line of succession to the presidency--and even then on an interim basis pending new elections.9 However, the Enabling Act provided no remedy for any violations of Article 2, and neither of these actions were ever challenged in court.
The film Hitler: The Rise of Evil contains a scene portraying the passage of the Enabling Act. The portrayal in the film is inaccurate, as the non-Nazi members of the Reichstag, including Vice-Chancellor von Papen, are shown objecting. In reality the Act met little resistance, with only the centre-left Social Democratic Party voting against passage.
- Kitson, Alison. Germany, 1858-1990: Hope, Terror, and Revival, pages 153-154 (Oxford U. Press 2001).
- Uwe Brodersen, Gesetze des NS-Staates, p. 22
- Article 85 outlined the process by which the Reichstag and Reichsrat approved the Reich budget. Article 87 restricted government borrowing.
- Articles 68 to 77 stipulated the procedures for enacting legislation in the Reichstag.
- Adolf Hitler: Compromises with Atheism Destroy Religious, Ethical Values Austin Cline, About.com
- Martin Collier, From Kaiser to Fuhrer: Germany, 1900-45, p131
- Klaus Scholder "The Churches and the Third Reich" volume 1 pp 160-1
- Letter from Kaas to von Bergen, German ambassador to the Vatican, translation quoted in Scholder, p. 247
- William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Touchstone Edition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990