Reichstag arson leads to state of emergency

2/27/1933

Shortly before election day, the Reichstag building went up in flames-most probably at the initiative of the Nazis themselves. Hearing about the arson, Hitler reportedly first said, "Now I've got them in my hands." The Nazis exploited the torching of the Reichstag to describe the act as a manifestation of an attempted Communist putsch and, on the basis of this allegation, to legitimize an all-out war against the Communists. That very night, Goering declared a supreme state of emergency throughout his police forces. The Nazis rounded up 4,000 political activists, mostly Communists, but including several non-Communist intellectuals. The headquarters and newspaper editorial boards of the Social-Democratic party were taken over. The heads of the Communist party in the Reichstag turned themselves over to the police voluntarily to prove that the charges were groundless. The next morning, Hitler presented President von Hindenburg with an emergency order, ready for his signature, that voided important basic civil rights, expanded substantially the list of crimes that carried the death penalty, and vastly boosted the central government's powers to pressure the individual states. The police were now empowered to imprison suspects and extend remand indefinitely at their discretion. They could keep relatives utterly uninformed about the reason for the arrest and the fate of the imprisoned person. They could prevent lawyers or other people from visiting detainees and reviewing their files. No court was entitled to intervene. The emergency order, "for the protection of the people and the State," was augmented that very day by an order "against treason and treachery." The two orders became the basis of jurisprudence and the foundation stones of the Nazi dictatorship. Thus, the emergency order of February 28, 1933, read:

"Paragraphs 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153 in the German Reich Constitution are provisionally null and void. Accordingly, the restrictions on personal freedom and the right to express opinions freely, including freedoms of the press, association, and assembly; monitoring of letters, cables, and telephone calls, searches of homes, and expropriation of property, and restrictions thereon, are hereby revoked within the limits previously stipulated in the law."

The order, to be in effect until 1945, replaced constitutional rule with a perpetual state of emergency.