Hitler’s Early Days as the Chancellor of Germany

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany in January 1933 set off wild jubilation among the Nazis. A lot of people who had left the party began to return. How did the Nazis deal with the Communists and the Social Democrats in the midst of this mood of celebration?

Photo of the Reichstag building.
The Reichstag building was the symbol of democracy before Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in 1933. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Nazis and the New Cabinet

There were only three Nazis in the new cabinet: Hitler as chancellor and Hermann Goering and Wilhelm Frick. Franz von Papen was the vice-chancellor of Germany. Frick was made Minister of the Interior. It meant control of the police, the FBI, the political police for Germany as a whole.

Hermann Goering was named Reich Commissar for the Ministry of the Interior of Prussia. Prussia was three-fifths of Germany; it dominated all of northern Germany. That put Hermann Goering in charge of the police in Prussia. So, the Nazis had control over the critical positions in Germany.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hitler’s Initial Strategy

Hitler was always afraid that President Paul von Hindenburg would change his mind, so he didn’t want anyone to get the impression that a Nazi coup had taken place.

He was sweetness and light in dealing with the members of the new cabinet. He didn’t bring about a purge at the local and regional level police offices.

Hitler, while being agreeable about virtually everything else, did say he wanted two things: He wanted the Reichstag dissolved, and he wanted new elections. Papen didn’t want this because he could already see if there were new elections with Hitler in power, this would be a whole different situation than the November elections, but he gave in. And so new elections were called for March 5, 1933.

The Tension between the Communists and the Nazis

In 1933, the situation was ripe for an outbreak of a civil war in Germany, with the Communists rising against the Nazis.

The Communists called for a general strike on January 31, the day after Hitler’s appointment. Hitler used this as a pretext to have Hindenburg allow him to issue an emergency decree that would go into effect on February 4, for “the protection of the German people”.

The emergency decree permitted a ban on all public meetings, or a ban on any press article or newspaper that brought the government into contempt. According to the Nazis, any criticism of the new government was now an offense, and they could close down newspapers, which they did. The Socialist, Communist and moderate newspapers were closed down by the Nazis.

Learn more about the rise of dictators in Europe in 1918-1939.

Hitler’s Actions against His Opponents

On February 5, an emergency decree dissolved all elected bodies in Prussia, and all power was shifted to the new government. This was important because it placed the new government in charge of all judiciary as well as police matters in the state of Prussia.

Fourteen police chiefs in Prussia were forced to resign and were replaced by Nazis or conservatives, and whole groups of local and regional officials were gradually forced out as a result.

The government had, in effect, banned political activity, campaign activity, by the left, be it the Social Democrats or the Communists. The SA bully boys (the storm troopers), who’d been fighting the Communists and the Social Democrats in the streets for years, now were in effect told it’s open season against the Communists.

Fire in the Reichstag Building

In the middle of the night of February 27–28, the Reichstag building in Berlin caught fire. The large, glass-domed, center section of this enormous building was gutted.

When the police and fire people got into this building, they couldn’t find anybody. The Nazis were absolutely convinced that the Communist uprising had arrived.

The Reichstag Fire Decree

On the same night, the Nazis drafted what was called the Reichstag Fire Decree for the protection of the people and the state, “to guard against Communist acts of violence endangering the state”.

Fire in the Reichstag building.
The fire in the Reichstag building in 1933 gave the Nazis a perfect opportunity to destroy their enemies. (Image: National Archives/Public domain)

The decree basically ended all civil rights guaranteed by the Weimar constitution: freedom of the press; freedom of expression; freedom of association; the secrecy of the mail and the telephone. The government was declaring martial law, in effect, and even beyond that.

This Reichstag Fire Decree, drawn up in the middle of the night, would become the constitutional basis for Nazi actions. It gave the government all the authority they needed to destroy their enemies.

Learn more about the disillusionment in Europe with democracy.

The Improvisation by the Nazis

The Communists denied that they had anything to do with the Reichstag fire, and said that the Nazis had engineered the whole event. The Nazis flatly denied it, they couldn’t trump up enough evidence against the Communists to link them to it at all.

The importance of it is not so much who set the fire; it’s what the Nazis made of it—they improvised. This would turn out to be a hallmark of Nazi activity all the way through the Third Reich. They did not act according to some sort of blueprint, but they seized an opportunity after seeing the potential of a situation.

The Nazis and Their Opponents

The Communists didn’t expect that 48 hours after the fire already 2,000 of their top swindlers would be sitting behind bars. Goering, the chief law enforcement officer of Germany, instructed the police authorities to interpret the Reichstag Fire Decree broadly. The police were to move not only against the Communists, but also against anyone who helped them.

In the days that followed these directives, summary arrests of Communist officials took place. Also, the authorities arrested the mid-level bureaucrats amongst the Social Democrats. So the head of the party could give orders, but it would never reach the rank and file because that mid-level party activist would be gone.

This is how the Nazis were able to defeat their opponents in the early days of their regime.

Common Questions about Hitler’s Early Days as the Chancellor of Germany

Q: When did the fire break out in the Reichstag building?

The fire broke out in the Reichstag building on the evening of February 27–28.

Q: What was the Reichstag Fire Decree?

In the middle of the night, on February 27–28, the Nazis drafted the Reichstag Fire Decree for the protection of the people and the state. It ended all civil rights of the Germans as guaranteed by the Weimar constitution.

Q: Who was the vice-chancellor of Germany in the new regime?

Franz von Papen was the vice-chancellor of Germany in the new regime.

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