The REICHSTAG FIRE DECREE (German : Reichstagsbrandverordnung) is the
common name of the DECREE OF THE REICH PRESIDENT FOR THE PROTECTION OF
PEOPLE AND STATE (German : Verordnung des Reichspräsidenten zum
Schutz von Volk und Staat) issued by German President Paul von
Hindenburg on the advice of Chancellor
* 1 Background * 2 Text of the decree * 3 Effects * 4 See also * 5 References * 6 Further reading
Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of
On the evening of 27 February 1933 — six days before the
parliamentary election — fire broke out in the Reichstag chambers.
While the exact circumstances of the fire remain unclear to this day,
what is clear is that Hitler and his supporters quickly capitalized on
the fire as a means by which to speed their consolidation of power.
Hitler almost immediately blamed the Communist Party of
Seizing on the burning of the Reichstag building as the supposed opening salvo in a communist uprising, the Nazis were able to throw millions of Germans into a convulsion of fear at the threat of Communist terror. The official account stated:
The burning of the Reichstag was intended to be the signal for a
bloody uprising and civil war . Large-scale pillaging in Berlin was
planned for as early as four o’clock in the morning on Tuesday. It
has been determined that starting today throughout
Within hours of the fire, dozens of Communists had been thrown into
jail. The next day, officials in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior
, which was led by
When the proposed decree was brought before the Reich Cabinet,
At an emergency cabinet meeting, Hitler declared that the fire now made it a matter of "ruthless confrontation of the KPD"--a confrontation that could not be "made dependent on judicial considerations." Though Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen objected to the clause giving the Reich cabinet the power to take over the state governments if necessary, the decree was approved. Shortly thereafter, President von Hindenburg signed the decree into law.
The decree consisted of six articles. Article 1 indefinitely suspended most of the civil liberties set forth in the Weimar Constitution, including habeas corpus , freedom of expression , freedom of the press , the right of free association and public assembly , the secrecy of the post and telephone , not to mention the protection of property and the home. Articles 2 and 3 allowed the Reich government to assume powers normally reserved for the federal states . Articles 4 and 5 established draconian penalties for certain offenses, including the death penalty for arson to public buildings. Article 6 simply stated that the decree took effect on the day of its proclamation.
TEXT OF THE DECREE
The preamble and Article 1 of the
Reichstag Fire Decree
VERORDNUNG DES REICHSPRäSIDENTEN ZUM SCHUTZ VON VOLK UND STAAT ORDER OF THE REICH PRESIDENT FOR THE PROTECTION OF PEOPLE AND STATE
Auf Grund des Artikels 48 Abs. 2 der Reichsverfassung wird zur Abwehr kommunistischer staatsgefährdender Gewaltakte folgendes verordnet: On the basis of Article 48 paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the German Reich, the following is ordered in defense against Communist state-endangering acts of violence:
§ 1. Die Artikel 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 und 153 der Verfassung des Deutschen Reichs werden bis auf weiteres außer Kraft gesetzt. Es sind daher Beschränkungen der persönlichen Freiheit, des Rechts der freien Meinungsäußerung, einschließlich der Pressefreiheit, des Vereins- und Versammlungsrechts, Eingriffe in das Brief-, Post-, Telegraphen- und Fernsprechgeheimnis, Anordnungen von Haussuchungen und von Beschlagnahmen sowie Beschränkungen des Eigentums auch außerhalb der sonst hierfür bestimmten gesetzlichen Grenzen zulässig. § 1. Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom , freedom of (opinion) expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
The decree was not accompanied by any written guidelines from the
Reich government; this omission gave wide latitude in interpreting the
decree to Nazis like Göring, who as Prussian interior minister was
the commander of the largest police force in Germany. The Länder not
yet in the Nazis’ grasp largely restricted themselves to banning the
Communist press, Communist meetings and demonstrations, and detaining
leading KPD officials. In Prussia, however, summary arrests of KPD
leaders were common, thousands were imprisoned in the days following
the fire, and the total number of arrests in
Among the German communists arrested on the basis of the Reichstag
Fire Decree was KPD chairman
Ernst Thälmann ; while KPD founding
Wilhelm Pieck and
Walter Ulbricht — later to be leaders in
Göring issued a directive to the Prussian police authorities on 3 March, stating that in addition to the constitutional rights stripped by the decree, “all other restraints on police action imposed by Reich and State law” were abolished “so far as this is necessary … to achieve the purpose of the decree.” Göring went on to say that
In keeping with the purpose and aim of the decree the additional measures … will be directed against the Communists in the first instance, but then also against those who co-operate with the Communists and who support or encourage their criminal aims… I would point out that any necessary measures against members or establishments of other than Communist, anarchist or Social Democratic parties can only be justified by the decree … if they serve to help the defense against such Communist activities in the widest sense.
Within two weeks of the
Reichstag Fire Decree
Despite the virulent rhetoric directed against the Communists, the Nazis did not formally ban the KPD right away. Not only did they fear a violent uprising, but they hoped the KPD's presence on the ballot would siphon off votes from the SPD. However, while the KPD managed to win 81 seats, it was an open secret that the KPD deputies would never be allowed to take their seats; they were thrown in jail as quickly as the police could track them down. Increasingly, the courts treated KPD membership as an act of treason. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the KPD was banned as of 6 March, the day after the election.
Just over three weeks after the passage of the Reichstag Fire Decree,
Hitler’s National Socialists further tightened their grasp on
In theory, Article 48 gave the Reichstag the power to demand the cancellation of the measures taken to enforce the Reichstag Fire Decree. However, any realistic chance of it being cancelled ended in July; by this time the other parties had either been banned outright or intimidated into dissolving themselves, and the Nazi Party had been declared the only legal party in Germany.