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.
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