Ermächtigungsgesetz, and the Deadly Perils of Automatic Government

On this day in 1933, the German Reichstag passes the Enabling Act, or Ermächtigungsgesetz, giving Adolph Hitler plenary powers over local, state and national matters throughout the country. In its legal operation, the Act allowed the cabinet (Hitler) 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.

On the night of February 27, the Reichstag building had been destroyed by fire, likely set by Hitler’s own minions and agents. On the pretext of a Communist plot to seize power, the constitutional guarantees of individual liberty were suspended and the Reich government given emergency powers under the Fire Decree. It was in this immediate context of fear and insecurity that elections were held a week later. Nevertheless, the Nazis failed to secure an outright majority, capturing 288 of 647 seats, and both the Center Party and the Social Democrats held firm. It was only with the help of his Nationalist partners, who won 52 seats, that Hitler was able to obtain a thin majority; to completely seize power “legally,” the concept of an “automatic” government led by Hitler was cooked up.

The voting occurred in a meeting at the Kroll Opera House, where non-Nazi members were surrounded and threatened by members of SA and SS. The Communists had already been repressed and were not able to vote, with scores of Social Democrats kept away as well; most of those present voted for the act, except for the present Social Democrats.The combined effect of the two laws was to transform Hitler’s government into a legal dictatorship.

In the following year of 1934, Hitler would cajole, coerce and assert control over individual state and local governments (Der Lander), labor, industry and banking. Following the murderous Night of the Long Knives, and the doddering President von Hindenburg’s death, with consent from army leaders, the office of president and supreme commander was merged with that of chancellor, and Hitler assumed the title of Führer und Reichskanzler. On August 19 a plebiscite confirmed his new office with 88 percent of 43,529,710 votes cast. A short 19 months later, Hitler’s Wehrmacht was on the move in the Rhineland.

In 1942, the Reichstag passed a law giving Hitler power of life and death over every citizen, effectively extending the provisions of the Enabling Act for the duration of the war. Hence, countless millions of Germans and citizens of the world would perish simply for the venal cowardice displayed by Hitler’s sycophants and those too weak to stand against him in 1933.

Any similarity to current events, persons or circumstances, including are purely coincidental and a function of the repeating nature of unlearned and unheeded history.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.