Wondered, in terms of current concerns in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and Libya about Islamist-based parties usurping democracy, whether there might be lessons from the past. Hitler provides a number, it would appear. At issue is when a party is democratically elected to power, but does not favour democratic rule. An elected majority of Communists would be an example. An elected majority of representatives who favour an Islamic state would be another. Hitler eliminated democracy in eighteen days. A Wikipedia extract from the page on the Enabling Act of 1933 (extracted August 7, 2013, with all the cautions against using Wikipedia as a primary source):
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 NSDAP had failed to gain an absolute majority in parliament, depending on the 52 seats won by its 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.
Preparations and negotiations
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.
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. 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”. 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.
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. 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.
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. With the KPD banned and 26 SPD deputies arrested or in hiding, the final vote was 444 supporting the Enabling Act to 94 (all Social Democrats) opposed. The Reichstag had adopted the Enabling Act with the support of 83% of the deputies; even if all SPD deputies had been present, it would have still passed with 78.7% support. After the Reichsrat had also given 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.
Two persons of particular note:
Ludwig Kass, a Catholic priest with a German political leadership role, contributed to the elimination of democracy in eighteen days, based on perceived agreements in Catholic self-interest. As a Catholic priest, he could not be a political leader, or political representative, today. (Bias declared: am Catholic, in some comfort zone, far, far back in the pews. View Kass as a Catholic disgrace.)
Otto Wels, the only elected representative who opposed the Enabling Act, whose opposition speech is highlighted as follows:
“At this historic hour, we German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism. No Enabling Law can give you the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible … From this new persecution too German Social Democracy can draw new strength. We send greetings to the persecuted and oppressed. We greet our friends in the Reich. Their steadfastness and loyalty deserve admiration. The courage with which they maintain their convictions and their unbroken confidence guarantee a brighter future.” [Noakes and Pridham, 1974].
Looking directly at Hitler, Wels proclaimed,
“You can take our lives and our freedom, but you cannot take our honour. We are defenseless but not honourless.”
In August of 1933, Otto Wels’ German citizenship was revoked. He died in Paris, in September of 1939, during the same month that World War II started. Grace of Fates.
Ludwig Kass did very well for himself, spending the balance of his life in Rome, following his significant contribution to the quick demise of German democracy. Canonized in death, in 1952:
Ludwig Kaas died in Rome in 1952, aged 70. He was first buried in the cemetery of Campo Santo in the Vatican. Later, Pope Pius XII ordered the body of his friend to be put to rest in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica. Ludwig Kass is thus the only Monsignor who rests in the vicinity of virtually all Popes of the twentieth century