January 30, 1933 is often referred to as the day in history when Hitler “seized power”. Actually, that isn’t quite true. He CAME to power on that date, but he didn’t SEIZE it. Instead, he was handed it on a plate by the conservative politician Franz von Pappen. It was he who persuaded President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor on the fair assumption that the leader of the Nazi party could be controlled. Bad call.
After this chance start, Hitler cemented his hold on power on March 5, 1933. In the federal elections, his party received 43.9% of the vote. This was still not an outright majority – and a surprisingly low result given that the Nazis had not only terrorized the opposition prior to polling day, but also “kept an eye” on the electoral procedure. However, thanks to the support of the German National People’s Party, Hitler took the helm with both hands – something he wouldn’t let go of till his suicide in 1945.
The 43.9% of the electorate who voted for the Nazis did so for a number of reasons. However, the advocacy of civil liberties can’t have been one of them. On February 28 – five days before the election – Hitler passed the Reichstag Fire Decree. This was in response to the fire, said to have been started by the Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe, which burned down the German parliament building. The first paragraph of the decree made no bones about Hitler’s intentions. Among other things, it suspended “until further notice” freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press. Furthermore, it allowed interference in the confidentiality of any kind of communication – be it by mail, telegraph, or telephone. Finally, it gave permission for house searches and the confiscation of property. Hardly anything anyone in their right mind would vote for, you would think. However, over 17 million people weren’t particularly concerned about having their constitutional rights trampled on in this way. They put their crosses next to the Nazi party on their ballot papers. As a result, they gave their tacit approval to the concentration camps.
The effect of the far-reaching Reichstag Fire Decree on the Bonhoeffer household was noticeable at once. No conversations on political themes were carried out above a whisper. In addition, Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus would even stand up from time to time to check that no one was listening behind the door. Finally, Bonhoeffer himself, with his “international connections”, felt decidedly uncomfortable with regard to the surveillance of the postal and telephone services. (See Bethge, 1994, pp. 312-313)
Germany was now a police state, and it had only taken a few shorts months to establish it, starting on January 30, 1933.
Bethge, E. (1994). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eine Biographie (author's translation)
Picture: "Der Angriff" Newspaper - January 30, 1933