The Reichstag fire took place on February 27, 1933, one week before the Reichstag election that made Hitler chancellor of Germany. The fire was crucial for Hitler’s accession to power. It was a perfect excuse to implement the Reichstag Fire Ordinance
the next day.
The ordinance suspended major democratic rights, such as habeas corpus, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, privacy of correspondence, association, and phone calls. It gave the police the power to search houses without a warrant and confiscate property. Offenses like arson became punishable by death.
In 1933, Hitler’s SA and SS members operated in plain view as auxiliary police. In effect, this amounted to a takeover of the government’s police force. Goering’s position as minister of the interior of Prussia put him in control of Germany’s largest police force. In April 1933, Goering established the Prussian Secret State Police in Berlin to investigate “political crimes.”
The police and the SA jointly set up the first concentration camps such as Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Famous German citizens such as Erich Mühsam and Carl von Ossietzky were sent off to Sonnenburg concentration camp as early as 1933. These events were not secrets. They were reported in the international press.
Hitler’s opponents were arrested. Among them were opposition lawyers such as Alfred Apfel, Ludwig Barbasch, Felix Halle, and, notably, Hans Litten.
In 1930, Jewish lawyer Hans Litten had subpoenaed Adolf Hitler in connection with a stormtrooper attack on the Communist Eden Club. For hours, Litten brilliantly cross-examined Hitler, who had claimed to denounce violence. Litten’s tactics and perseverance eventually exposed Hitler’s actual agenda. It was a short-lived victory. Litten was arrested when Hitler became chancellor and died in a Dachau concentration camp. The BBC production The Man Who Crossed Hitler (or Hitler on Trial)
dramatized Litten’s story.
Within the first days after the fire, several thousand people were taken into “protective custody.” In effect, an arrest not requiring judicial review or a warrant. Detainees were intimidated, beaten, and tortured. There was a public outcry when Egon Erwin Kisch, Carl von Ossietzky, and even Reichstag deputies were arrested.
In March, the Law to Remove the Distress of the People and the Reich
was passed. This law, also called the Enabling Act
, relinquished the legislative power of the Reichstag to the Reich government. The law abolished the separation of powers. It meant that new laws came into effect only one day after their publication in the legal paper Reichsgesetzblatt (RGBI).
To handle the corresponding judicial load, twenty-six special courts for minor political crimes were established. The lawsuits were farcical. To make matters worse, convicted defendants had no right to appeal.
The world followed developments in Germany closely. Internationally, there were rumblings of boycotting Germany. The international press compared the Reichstag Fire Trial to the Dreyfus affair. It was speculated the fire might have been the work of the Nazis. The Legal Commission of the International Investigation Committee held a Counter-Reichstag-Fire-Inquiry
In August 1933, the Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag
The Nazis, fully aware of the international attention the Reichstag Fire Trial attracted, carefully used it to their own advantage. The trial took place from September 21 to December 23, 1933. This gave Hitler time to present his new order as law-abiding, above-board, and ethical. He was able to create a scenario to discredit the hated communists and suspicious foreigners.
In order to boost their version, the Nazis employed state-of-the-art technology. The international press was able to film within the German Supreme Court. At first, the trial was broadcast live on loudspeakers outside the court and on the radio. However, this ended when defendant Georgi Dimitrov (director of the Comintern’s Western Europe office in Berlin) managed to corner Goering and turn the tables.
The sheer number of required laws unbalancing the system meant addressing the number of fair laws that need to be adjusted. New laws were drawn up, interpreted, and implemented by legal experts who were professionals and knew precisely what they were doing.
Apart from everything else, these laws created work. For example, the July 1933, Sterilization Law
, made famous in the film Judgment At Nuremburg
, required the establishment of Genetic Health Courts and Higher Hereditary Health Courts. These utilized eugenic and racial policies. Over the years, their judges ordered the forced sterilization of more than 400,000 people. Many of the victims of this law, mostly women, died. The Nazis considered this an acceptable outcome.
The ease and rapidity with which civil rights could be revoked and courts turned into kangaroo courts is a timeless warning how quickly justice can be perverted in the name of law and order.