When they arrived on the scene, Adolf Hitler wasted no time in making the pronouncement: “This is a God-given signal.” He continued: “If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, then we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist.” The scene was the parliamentary building in Berlin, the Reichstag, that went up in flames from an arson attack. The date was February 27th in 1933.
It was a flashpoint event that made it possible for Adolf Hitler to play upon public and political fears and thereby consolidate power, setting the stage for the rise of Nazi Germany. The competing narratives and revisionist history only added to the national chaos, while also facilitating power grabs. To some, it was a Communist plot, to others the staging of Antifascism. It is certain that Hitler played upon the FIBS of Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear to consolidate power, thus setting the stage for the rise of Nazi Germany. Today, the “Reichstag Fire” is a powerful political metaphor that serves as a cautionary tale.
Germany’s liberal democracy was first established at the conclusion of World War I. The 1919 Weimar Constitution called for the president to be elected by direct ballot. The legislators that comprised the Reichstag were also elected by popular vote, while the president would appoint a chancellor to introduce legislation. The president held the power to dismiss his cabinet, the chancellor, and even to dissolve an ineffective Reichstag. In cases of national emergency, the president could invoke Article 48, which gave him dictatorial powers and the right to intervene directly in the governance of Germany’s 19 territorial states.
The economic and political unrest of the early 1930s meant that no single political party had a majority in the Reichstag, so the nation was held together by fragile coalitions. The political chaos prompted President Paul von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag over and over again. With each dissolution came new elections. Hitler rose to the head of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Nazis. By 1928 the group’s membership exceeded 100,000. The Nazis denounced the Weimar Republic and what they called the “November criminals,” that had signed the Treaty of Versailles. That treaty had forced Germany to accept responsibility for World War I, pay reparations, transfer territory to their neighbors, and limit the size of the military.
When the Great Depression hit, sending the U.S. and Europe into an economic tailspin, the number of unemployed in Germany rose to about 30 percent of the adult population. As one might imagine, with 6 million unemployed, there was massive social upheaval. This the Nazis exploited. By 1930, they won 18.3 percent of the Reichstag vote and became the second largest party after the Social Democrats. The Communist party gained about ten percent of the vote.
The Nazis, by attracting voters from other right-leaning factions, then garnered 33 percent of the vote. In January of 1933, Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Hitler as chancellor in the desperate hope that the other conservative parties would join with the Nazis to keep the Communists out of power. The Nazis infiltrated the police. Hitler also used his powers as chancellor to enroll 50,000 Nazi SA men, known as the brown shirts, as auxiliary police.
On February 28, Hindenburg invoked Article 48. The cabinet drew up the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State.” The act abolished freedom of speech, assembly, privacy and the press. It legalized phone tapping and interception of correspondence. And, it suspended the autonomy of federated states. That night around 4,000 people were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the SA.
The SA was founded out of various emotionally charged and intellectually stunted elements that had attached themselves to the fledgling Nazi movement. Its early membership was drawn largely from armed freebooter groups. These were mainly ex-soldiers, that battled leftists in the streets in the early days of the Weimar Republic. Outfitted in brown uniforms after the fashion of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Blackshirts in Italy, the SA men protected party meetings, marched in Nazi rallies, and physically assaulted political opponents.
In the United States today, the former president has repeatedly characterized those protesting the systemic murder of black citizens as “thugs,” “terrorists,” and “anarchists.” He has also praised individuals who participated in the insurrection of January 6th in 2021 as “great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.” Trump empathized with those who had violently stormed the Capitol, saying, “I know your pain, I know your hurt.” He then said, “We love you.”
Former White House chief of staff General John Kelly recently wrote that, during a 2018 visit to Europe to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, then president Donald J. Trump said: “Well, Hitler did a lot of good things.” Many have since compared the Reichstag’s Fire to the White House deceptions that were architected by Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Miller, a protege of Joseph Goebbels. During his stint as the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels the defined truth as “The enemy of the state.”