Modern history



In February 1931, the young Dutch construction worker Marinus van der Lubbe began a lengthy trek across Central Europe, trying to work his way towards the Soviet Union, a state which he greatly admired. Born on 13 January 1909 in Leiden, he had grown up in circumstances of the direst poverty. His drunken father had deserted the family soon after Marinus’s birth and, at the age of 12, van der Lubbe had lost his mother, too. After her death he trained as a mason, came into contact with the labour movement and joined the Communist youth movement. But he soon came to dislike the party’s strict code of discipline and authoritarian structure, and left it in 1931 to join a radical anarcho-syndicalist organization which elevated ‘propaganda by the deed’ into its main principle of action. With his eyesight severely impaired by an accident at work, he found it difficult to get a job, and stayed mainly in dosshouses and barns during his journey towards Russia. He only got as far as Poland, however, before he started back, reaching Berlin on 18 February 1933. Here, he found the political situation increasingly desperate, the passivity of the mainstream labour parties incomprehensible. While the Nazis had free rein in everything they did, the left was being ruthlessly suppressed. It was time, he thought, for the unemployed, deserted by all sides, to strike a blow for freedom and bread. A believer in direct action since his anarcho-syndicalist days, he decided to protest against the bourgeois state and its increasing suppression of the labour movement. The unemployed themselves, he discovered in his visits to labour exchanges, were sunk deep in apathy, incapable of mounting their own protest. Somebody had to do it for them.54

Arson was the method he chose. By causing spectacular damage to the institutions of the state, or rather, to buildings that housed them, he would, he thought, demonstrate that they were far from invulnerable, and rouse the unemployed to spontaneous mass action themselves. He had already been found guilty by a court in Leiden of damage to property, and was no stranger to impulsive and unplanned acts of protest; indeed, his predilection for them had been the principal cause of his break with the Dutch Communists. Now he was to undertake the same thing in Germany. He began with symbols of the state’s oppression of the unemployed, and the predominance, as he believed, of the old order. On 25 February van der Lubbe attempted to burn down a welfare office in the Berlin district of Neukölln, then, more ambitiously, the town hall and the former royal palace. All three attempts were frustrated through immediate discovery and were barely reported in the press. Clearly, something more dramatic and better prepared was required. Seeking out the supreme symbol of the bourgeois political order that, he thought, had made his life and that of so many other unemployed young men a misery, he decided to burn down the Reichstag.55

On the morning of 27 February, van der Lubbe spent his last remaining money on matches and firelighters. After checking the building to establish the best way in, he waited until nightfall, then gained entry to the empty and darkened Reichstag building at about nine in the evening. His senses sharpened in the dark by long practice thanks to his impaired vision, he first tried to set light to the furniture in the restaurant, then, on meeting with no success, he found his way into the debating chamber, where the curtains proved easily combustible. Soon, the wooden panelling was blazing and the fire had gained sufficient strength for the dome above the chamber to act as a kind of chimney, fanning the flames by creating an upward draught. Meanwhile, van der Lubbe rushed through the rest of the building attempting to start other fires. Eventually, he was caught and overpowered by Reichstag officials. By the time he was arrested, the building was ablaze, and the fire brigade, despite arriving promptly on the scene, could do nothing but dampen the ruins of the main chamber and do its best to save the rest.

Across the way from the blazing building, Hitler’s intimate Putzi Hanfstaengl, lodging temporarily in Goring’s official residence, was woken up by the housekeeper, who pointed through the window at the flames. Hanfstaengl immediately telephoned Goebbels, who at first thought that the notoriously frivolous socialite was joking. But Putzi insisted he was not. Goebbels checked the story out - and found it was true. Before long, he had alerted Hitler.56 The Nazi leaders, Hitler, Goebbels, and Goring met at the scene. Rudolf Diels, the (non-Nazi) head of the Prussian political police, and one of the first senior figures to arrive, found van der Lubbe already under interrogation by his officers:

His upper body naked, sweating, and smeared with dirt, he sat in front of them, breathing heavily. He was gasping for breath as if he had just completed a tremendous task. A wild look of triumph was in the burning eyes of the pale, emaciated young face. I sat opposite him a few times more that night at police headquarters and listened to his confused stories. I read the Communist leaflets that he carried with him in his trouser pocket. They were of the kind that were being publicly distributed everywhere in those days ...

The frank confessions of Marinus van der Lubbe could in no way lead me to think that such a little fire-raiser, who knew his crazy business so well, needed helpers. Why shouldn’t just a single match suffice to set light to the cold, flammable pomp of the plenary chamber, the old upholstered furniture and heavy curtains and the bone-dry wooden splendour of the panelling? But this specialist employed a whole rucksack full of incendiary devices.57

Subsequent investigation turned up a mass of documentary evidence confirming his story that he had been acting alone.58

Summoned to report to the group of leading Nazis gathered on a balcony above the Chamber, Diels encountered a scene of frightening hysteria. Remembering these dramatic events after the war, he continued:

Hitler had propped himself up on the stone parapet of the balcony with both arms and stared silently into the red sea of flames. The first storms lay behind him. As I entered, Goring walked towards me. In his voice lay the whole ominous emotionalism of that dramatic hour: ‘This is the beginning of the Communist uprising! Now they’ll strike out! There’s not a minute to waste!’

Göring could not continue. Hitler turned to the assembled company. I now saw that his face was flaming red with excitement and from the heat that was gathering in the cupola. He shouted as if he wanted to burst, in an unrestrained way such as I had not previously experienced with him: ‘There will be no more mercy now; anyone who stands in our way will be butchered. The German people won’t have any understanding for leniency. Every Communist functionary will be shot where he is found. The Communist deputies must be hanged this very night. Everybody in league with the Communists is to be arrested. Against Social Democrats and Reichsbanner too there will be no more mercy!’

I reported the results of the first interrogations of Marinus van der Lubbe - that in my opinion he was a madman. But Hitler was not the right man to tell this to: he mocked my childish credulity: ‘It’s a really ingenious, long-prepared thing. These criminals have worked it out very nicely, but they’ve miscalculated, haven’t they, my Party Comrades! These subhumans don’t suspect at all how much the people is on our side. In their mouseholes, from which they now want to come out, they don’t hear anything of the rejoicing of the masses’, and so it went on.

I asked Goring to step aside, but he didn’t let me speak. Highest emergency footing for the police, ruthless use of firearms, and anything else that follows in such a case from major military alarm orders.’59

It was, Diels told a subordinate, a ‘mad-house’. But the time for action against the Communists had come none the less.60

A few hours after the Reichstag fire, police squads began to dig out lists of Communists prepared some months or even years previously for the eventuality of a ban on the party, and set off in cars and vans to haul them out of bed. The Communists had a hundred deputies in the Reichstag and thousands of representatives in other legislatures, officials, bureaucrats, organizers and activists. Many of the lists were out of date, but the precipitate and unplanned nature of the action netted a good number of prisoners who might otherwise have escaped, as well as missing many who simply could not be found. Four thousand were arrested altogether. Diels and the police quietly ignored Goring’s instruction that they should be shot.61 While this massive operation was under way, Goring’s adviser Ludwig Grauert stepped in. Grauert was the former head of the north-west German iron and steel employers’ association, and he had just been appointed to head the police department of the Prussian Interior Ministry. A Nationalist by political inclination, he now suggested an emergency decree to provide legal cover for the arrests and to deal with any further acts of violence by the Communists. A law had already been proposed to the cabinet on 27 February, before the fire, by the arch-conservative Minister of Justice, Franz Gürtner, who, like the other conservatives in the cabinet, enthusiastically supported draconian measures for the suppression of public disorder, which they blamed entirely on the Communists and Social Democrats. Gürtner’s measure proposed serious restrictions on civil liberties in the interests of preventing the Communists from launching a general strike. The publication of demands for action of this kind was to be treated as high treason, which was punishable by death.62 But this proposal was now overtaken by the new situation.

The Nazi Reich Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, saw in Grauert’s draft the opportunity to extend his power over the federated states, and introduced a crucial new clause 2, allowing the cabinet, rather than the President, to intervene, much as Papen had done in Prussia in 1932. Beyond this, the draft decree, drawing on internal discussions of emergency legislation from the early 1920s, suspended several sections of the Weimar constitution, particularly those governing freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly and association. It allowed the police to detain people in protective custody indefinitely and without a court order, in contrast to previous laws and decrees, which had set strict time limits before judicial intervention occurred. Most of these measures had been considered on various occasions before, and had a high degree of support in the higher civil service. But they went much further than anything before. Presenting the decree to the cabinet at 11 o‘clock on the morning of 28 February, Hitler reminded his Conservative colleagues that the coalition had intended from the outset to destroy the Communists: ’The psychologically correct moment for the confrontation has now arrived. There is no purpose in waiting any longer for it.’63

Hitler made plain his intention of proceeding ruthlessly and with little regard to the niceties of the law. The struggle against the Communists, he said, ‘must not be made dependent on judicial considerations’. And he held out to his cabinet colleagues the enticing prospect of a massive victory in the forthcoming elections on the basis of the banning of the Communists, Germany’s third largest party, together with the alarm in the general public caused by the arson attempt.64 Goring spoke next, claiming that van der Lubbe had been seen with leading Communists such as Ernst Torgler shortly before he entered the Reichstag. The Communists, he said, were planning not only the destruction of public buildings but also the ‘poisoning of public kitchens’ and the kidnapping of the wives and children of government ministers. Before long, he was claiming to have detailed proof that the Communists had been stockpiling explosives in order to carry out a campaign of sabotage against electricity works, the railways, ‘as well as all other large concerns important for life support’.65

Overriding Papen’s objections to clause 2, the cabinet agreed to present the decree to Hindenburg, who signed it despite the fact that it ceded a significant part of his powers to the Hitler government. It came into effect immediately. Paragraph 1 suspended key articles of the Weimar constitution and declared:

Thus restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press, on the right of assembly and association, and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house-searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property rights are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

Paragraph 2 allowed the government to take over the federated states if public order was endangered. These two paragraphs, valid ‘until further notice’, provided the legal pretext for everything that was to follow in the next few months.66 The Nazi seizure of power could now begin in earnest.


The Reichstag fire decree was launched amidst a barrage of propaganda in which Goring and the Nazi leadership painted a drastic picture of an imminent ‘German Bolshevik Revolution’ accompanied by outrages and atrocities of every kind. The propaganda had its effect. Ordinary middle-class citizens like Louise Solmitz shuddered to think of the fate that Germany had so narrowly escaped, and were impressed by the proofs of the dastardly Communist plot that Goring provided ‘by the hundred-weight’. 67 Over two hundred telegrams poured into the Ministry of Justice from local Nazi groups all over the country, demanding that the ‘sub-humans’ whose ‘demonic annihilation plans’ threatened to turn ‘our Fatherland into a blood-soaked expanse of rubble’ should be shot out of hand, or publicly strangled in front of the Reichstag building. ‘Annihilation of the red pack of criminals down to the last man’ was the demand that came from many quarters, and some local Nazi authorities expressed their fear that public disorder would occur if the culprits were not immediately executed.68 Goebbels’s propaganda now set loose the pent-up fury of the brownshirts against their Communist opponents. The stormtroopers, who believed themselves to be virtually immune from prosecution by their previous enrolment as auxiliary police, had already released some of their tension in widespread acts of violence, but this was the moment they had really been waiting for. One stormtrooper wrote later of the aftermath of 28 February 1933:

We were prepared; we knew the intentions of our enemies. I had put together a small ‘mobite squad’ of my storm from the most daring of the daring. We lay in wait night after night. Who was going to strike the first blow? And then it came. The beacon in Berlin, signs of fire all over the country. Finally the relief of the order: ‘Go to it!’ And we went to it! It was not just about the purely human ‘you or me’, ‘you or us’, it was about wiping the lecherous grin off the hideous, murderous faces of the Bolsheviks for all time, and protecting Germany from the bloody terror of unrestrained hordes.69

All over Germany, however, it was now the brownshirts who visited ‘the bloody terror of unrestrained hordes’ upon their enemies. Their violence was the expression of long-nurtured hatred, their actions directed against individual ‘Marxists’ and Communists often known to them personally. There was no coordinated plan, no further ambition on their part than the wreaking of terrible physical aggression on men and women they feared and hated.70

The brownshirts and the police might have been prepared; but in crucial respects their Communist opponents were not. The Communist Party leadership was taken unawares by the events of 27-8 February. It thought that it would be entering another period of relatively mild repression such as it had successfully survived in 1923 and 1924. This time, however, things were very different. The police were backed by the full ferocity of the brownshirts. The party leader and former candidate for the Reich Presidency Ernst Thälmann and his aides were arrested on 3 March in his secret headquarters in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Ernst Torgler, the party’s floor leader in the Reichstag, gave himself up to the police on 28 February in order to refute the government’s accusation that he and the party leadership had ordered the burning of the Reichstag building. Of the leading party figures, Wilhelm Pieck left Germany in the spring, Walter Ulbricht, head of the party in Berlin, in the autumn. Strenuous efforts were made to smuggle out other politburo members, but many of them were arrested before they could escape. All over the country, Communist Party organizations were smashed, offices occupied, activists taken into custody. Often the stormtroopers carried off any funds they could lay their hands on, and looted the homes of Communist Party members for cash and valuables while the police looked on. Soon the wave of arrests swelled to many times the number originally envisaged. Ten thousand Communists had been put into custody by 15 March. Official records indicated that 8,000 Communists were arrested in the Rhine and Ruhr district in March and April 1933 alone. Party functionaries were obliged to admit that they had been compelled to carry out a ‘retreat’, but insisted that it was an ‘orderly retreat’. In fact, as Pieck conceded, within a few months most of the local functionaries were no longer active, and many rank-and-file members had been terrorized into silence.71

Hitler evidently feared that there would be a violent reaction if he obtained a decree outlawing the Communist Party altogether. He preferred instead to treat individual Communists as criminals who had planned illegal acts and were now going to pay the consequences. That way, the majority of Germans might be won over to tolerate or even support the wave of arrests that followed the Reichstag fire and would not fear that this would be followed by the outlawing of other political parties. It was for this reason that the Communist Party was able to contest the elections of 5 March 1933, despite the fact that a large number of its candidates were under arrest or had fled the country, and there was never any chance that the 81 deputies who were elected would be able to take up their seats; indeed, they were arrested as soon as the police were able to locate them. By allowing the party to put up candidates in the election, Hitler and his fellow ministers also hoped to weaken the Social Democrats. If Communist candidates had not been allowed to stand, then many of the electors who would have voted for them might have cast their ballot for the Social Democrats instead. As it was, the Social Democrats were deprived of this potential source of support. Even towards the end of March the cabinet still felt unable to issue a formal prohibition of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, as well as being murdered, beaten up or thrown into makeshift torture centres and prisons set up by the brownshirts, Communist functionaries, particularly if they had been arrested by the police, were prosecuted in large numbers through the regular criminal courts.

Mere membership of the party was not in itself illegal. But police officials, state prosecutors and judges were overwhelmingly conservative men. They had long regarded the Communist Party as a dangerous, treasonable and revolutionary organization, particularly in the light of the events of the early Weimar years, from the Spartacist uprising in Berlin to the ‘red terror’ and the hostage shootings in Munich. Their view had been amply confirmed by the street violence of the Red Front-Fighters’ League and now, many thought, by the Reichstag fire. The Communists had burned down the Reichstag, so all Communists must be guilty of treason. Even more tortuous reasoning was sometimes employed. In some cases, for instance, the courts argued that since the Communist Party was no longer able to pursue its policies of changing the German constitution by parliamentary means, it must be trying to change it by force, which was now a treasonable offence, so anyone who belonged to it must be doing the same. Increasingly, therefore, the courts treated membership of the party after 3o January 1933, occasionally even before that, as a treasonable activity. In all but name, the Communist Party was effectively outlawed from 28 February 1933, and completely banned from 6 March onwards, the day after the election.72

Having driven the Communists from the streets in a matter of days after 28 February, Hitler’s stormtroopers now ruled the cities, parading their newly won supremacy in the most obvious and intimidatory manner. As the Prussian political police chief Rudolf Diels later reported, the SA, in contrast to the Party, was prepared to seize power.

It did not need a unified leadership; the ‘Group Staff’ set an example but gave no orders. The SA storm-squads, however, had firm plans for operations in the Communist quarters of the city. In those March days every SA man was ‘on the heels of the enemy’, each knew what he had to do. The storm-squads cleaned up the districts. They knew not only where their enemies lived, they had also long ago discovered their hideouts and meeting places ... Not only the Communists, but anybody who had ever spoken out against Hitler’s movement, was in danger.73

Brownshirt squads stole cars and pick-up trucks from Jews, Social Democrats and trade unions, or were presented with them by nervous businessmen hoping for protection. They roared along Berlin’s main streets, weapons on show and banners flying, advertising to everyone who was the boss now. Similar scenes could be observed in towns and cities across the land. Hitler, Goebbels, Goring and the other Nazi leaders had no direct control over these events. But they had both unleashed them, by enrolling the Nazi stormtroopers along with the SS and Steel Helmets as auxiliary police on 22 February, and given them general, more than implicit approval, by the constant, repeated violence of their rhetorical attacks on ‘Marxists’ of all kinds.

Once more, a dialectical process was at work, forged in the days when the Nazis often faced police hostility and criminal prosecution for their violence: the leadership announced in extreme but unspecific terms that action was to be taken, and the lower echelons of the Party and its paramilitary organizations translated this in their own terms into specific, violent action. As a Nazi Party internal document later noted, action of this kind, by a nod-and-a-wink, had become already the custom in the 1920s. At this time, the rank-and-file had become used to reading into their leaders’ orders rather more than the actual words that their leaders uttered. ‘In the interest of the Party,’ the document continued, ‘it is also in many cases the custom of the person issuing the command - precisely in cases of illegal political demonstrations - not to say everything and just to hint at what he wants to achieve with the order.’74 The difference now was that the leadership had the resources of the state at its disposal. It was able by and large to convince civil servants, police, prison administrators and legal officials - conservative nationalists almost to a man - that the forcible suppression of the labour movement was justified. So it persuaded them that they should not merely stand aside when the stormtroopers moved in, but should actively help them in their work of destruction. This pattern of decision-making and its implementation was to be repeated on many occasions subsequently, most notably in the Nazis’ policy towards the Jews.


Map 17. The Nazis in the Reichstag of March 1933


The Nazis’ campaign for the Reichstag elections of 5 March 1933 achieved saturation coverage all over Germany.75 Now the resources of big business and the state were thrown behind their efforts, and, as a result, the whole nature of the election was transformed. In the small north German town of Northeim, for instance, as in virtually every other locality, the elections were held in an atmosphere of palpable terror. The local police were positioned by the railway station, bridges and other key installations, advertising the regime’s claim that such places were vulnerable to terrorist attacks by the Communists. The local stormtroopers were authorized to carry loaded firearms on 28 February and enrolled as auxiliary police on 1 March, whereupon they ostentatiously began to mount patrols in the streets, and raided the houses of local Social Democrats and Communists, accusing them both of preparing a bloodbath of honest citizens. The Nazi newspaper reported that a worker had been arrested for distributing a Social Democratic election leaflet; such activities on behalf of the Social Democrats and the Communists were forbidden, it announced. Having silenced the main opposition, the Nazis set up radio loudspeakers in the Market Square and on the main street, and every evening from 1 to 4 March Hitler’s speeches were amplified across the whole town centre. On election eve, six hundred stormtroopers, SS men, Steel Helmets and Hitler Youth held a torchlight parade through the town, ending in the city park to listen to loudspeakers booming out a radio relay of a speech by Hitler that was simultaneously blared out to the public in four other major public locations in the town centre. Black-white-red flags and swastika banners bedecked the main streets, and were displayed in shops and stores. Opposition propaganda was nowhere to be seen. On election day - a Sunday - the brownshirts and SS patrolled and marched menacingly through the streets, while the Party and the Steel Helmets organized motor transport to get people to the polling stations. The same combination of terror, repression and propaganda was mobilized in every other community, large and small, across the land.76

When the results of the Reichstag elections came in, it seemed that these tactics had paid off. The coalition parties, Nazis and Nationalists, won 51.9 per cent of the vote. ‘Unbelievable figures,’ wrote Goebbels triumphantly in his private diary for 5 March 1933: ‘it’s like we’re on a high.’77 Some constituencies in central Franconia saw the Nazi vote at over 80 per cent, and in a few districts in Schleswig-Holstein the Party gathered nearly all the votes cast. Yet the jubilation of the Party bosses was ill-placed. Despite massive violence and intimidation, the Nazis themselves had still managed to secure only 43.9 per cent of the vote. The Communists, unable to campaign, with their candidates in hiding or under arrest, still managed 12.3 per cent, a smaller drop from their previous vote than might have been expected, while the Social Democrats, also suffering from widespread intimidation and interference with their campaigning, did only marginally worse than in November 1932, with 18.3 per cent. The Centre Party more or less held its own at 11.2 per cent, despite losses to the Nazis in some parts of the south, and the other, now minor, parties repeated their performance of the previous November with only slight variations.78

Seventeen million people voted Nazi, and another 3 million Nationalist. But the electorate numbered almost 45 million. Nearly 5 million Communist votes, over 7 million Social Democrats, and a Centre Party vote of 5.5 million, testified to the complete failure of the Nazis, even under conditions of semi-dictatorship, to win over a majority of the electorate.79 Indeed, at no time since their rise to electoral prominence at the end of the 1920s had they managed to win an absolute majority on their own at the Reich level or within any of the federated states. Moreover, the majority they obtained together with their coalition partners the Nationalists in March 1933 fell far short of the two-thirds needed to secure an amendment of the constitution in the Reichstag. What the elections did make clear, however, was that nearly two-thirds of the voters had lent their support to parties - the Nazis, the Nationalists, and the Communists - who were open enemies of Weimar democracy. Many more had voted for parties, principally the Centre Party and its southern associate the Bavarian People’s Party, whose allegiance to the Republic had all but vanished and whose power over their constituencies was now being seriously eroded. In 1919, three-quarters of the voters had backed the Weimar coalition parties. It had taken only fourteen short years for this situation to be effectively reversed.80

The violence rose to new heights after the elections on 5 March. In Königsberg, in East Prussia, for example, the SA invaded the local Social Democrat headquarters on election night, destroyed the contents and turned the premises into a makeshift torture centre, where they administered beatings so severe that the Communist Reichstag deputy Walter Schütz died from the injuries he received there. Trade union offices were ransacked, typewriters stolen, furniture broken up, cash stolen and documents burned.81 In Wuppertal, a brownshirt detachment hauled the worker Heinrich B., an ex-Communist, out of his home; his corpse was found on an allotment the next day. On i April in the same district, eight stormtroopers ambushed the 62-year-old worker August K., a former bandleader for the local Communist music group, on his way home and shot him down, causing fatal injuries.82 Social Democrats were hard hit, too. On 9 March Wilhelm Sollmann, a Social Democratic Reichstag deputy and a leading figure in the party in Cologne, was attacked by brownshirts and SS men in his home, beaten up, taken off to the local Nazi Party headquarters, tortured for two hours and made to drink castor oil and urine, before the police arrived and took him to a prison hospital to patch up his wounds. On 13 March the brownshirts in Braunschweig started to force Social Democratic town councillors and deputies in the state parliament to ‘volunteer’ to resign their seats, beating one of them to death when he refused. At this point, too, the Nazis were beginning to raid Social Democratic party offices in the search for cash and other loot. The head of the Social Democratic press in Chemnitz, Georg Landgraf, was shot dead on 13 March after refusing to reveal to a gang of brownshirts the whereabouts of the party funds. Protest at such actions was difficult if not impossible, because all Social Democratic newspapers had been banned for fourteen days since the beginning of March, an order that was renewed for another fourteen days on its expiry, and so on, until it became permanent.83

The looting did not escape the attention of the more honest officers amongst the police. On 19 April 1933, for instance, the police commissioner in Hesse circulated police stations and local administrators condemning the illegal confiscation of the property of Marxist organizations during the raids, including the removal of musical instruments, gym equipment and even beds, all clearly intended for the private use of the looters.84 Efforts were subsequently made to regularize the position and set up proper institutions to manage the assets of the banned parties and unions, not least because these included funds used to support unemployed former members; but by the time this had been done, a lot of money and property had disappeared into the hands of individual brownshirts. A law was eventually passed on 26 May 1933 assigning the property of the (still technically legal) Communist Party to the federated states.85 In the midst of all this mayhem, many stormtroopers took the opportunity to settle old personal scores. In Wuppertal, for example, Friedrich D. was hauled out of his bedroom at four in the morning by a group of stormtroopers under the command of storm leader Puppe. His body was found two days later. He was murdered because he had been conducting a relationship with Puppe’s sister which Puppe had for some time been trying to stop. Puppe was not prosecuted for this murderous act of spite. Even brownshirts themselves were not immune: one long-term Nazi, Karl W., was arrested, beaten up and imprisoned after accusing the brownshirt leader in Wuppertal of embezzlement and corruption, not the only incident of its kind to be reported at this time. What went on in Wuppertal must have been repeated many hundreds of times over in other parts of the country.86

This campaign of violence, unleashed by a brownshirt organization whose numbers were growing daily until they reached over two million by the summer of 1933, provided the essential context for the co-ordination of the federated states along the lines already put into practice by Papen in his takeover of Prussia the previous summer.87 The State Court had ruled that takeover partially illegal, and the Social Democratic government displaced by Papen had had some success in using the Federal Council, representing the states, to block measures of the Reich government. Hitler’s cabinet had secured an emergency decree on 6 February 1933 putting an end to this situation, but the new Nazi representatives of Prussia on the Federal Council saw their legitimacy denied by the council when it met on 16 February pending a decision by the State Court. Meanwhile, however, the council resolved to cease meeting until the legal situation was clarified, and in the resulting hiatus, regional organizations of the brownshirts and the Nazi Party moved in to co-ordinate the state governments from below. Most of the federated states were ruled by minority governments, reflecting the almost total blockage of legislative bodies by this time, and they lacked the legitimacy to offer any more than token resistance. In the period between 6 and 15 March 1933 Nazi police officers and ‘auxiliary police’ units of the SA and SS raised the swastika on official buildings everywhere. This heavily symbolic gesture was tolerated or approved by the majority of state government ministers, who were intimidated by simultaneous demonstrations of massed columns of stormtroopers in front of government buildings. Ministers who objected either resigned or were put under house arrest by detachments of brownshirts. Reich Interior Minister Frick then installed state commissioners who proceeded to dismiss existing police chiefs and appoint Nazis in their stead, and to replace elected government ministers with their own nominees. Only in Hamburg, Württemberg and Hesse did the state parliaments, in the absence of the Communist deputies and through the abstention of the Social Democrats, appoint new coalition governments in which all the ministries were held by Nazis and Nationalists. Under these circumstances, state elections held in early March (the most important being the elections of 12 March in Prussia) were largely meaningless.88

The paramilitary affiliate of the Social Democratic ‘Iron Front’, the Reichsbanner, had already been crippled by the police occupation of many of its offices in February; in early March, immediately after the election, the state governments began to issue banning orders and arrest leading officials, so that one branch after another began to dissolve itself to avoid further persecution. In this atmosphere, a number of leading Social Democrats such as Otto Braun and Albert Grzesinski fled the country to avoid arrest or worse.89The leader of the Reichsbanner, Karl Höltermann, had already left on 2 May. An attempt by Social Democratic leaders to persuade Goring to lift the ban on their party’s newspapers met with the response that it would continue until foreign socialist newspapers ceased their ‘campaign’ against the Reich government. It was an indication of how little they still understood the Nazis’ methods that leading Social Democrats actually travelled to other European countries to try and explain the situation. The Socialist International reacted with a strong public condemnation of the Nazi terror (‘the unspeakable and abominable misdeeds which the despots of Germany are committing day by day’). They added an appeal for joint action with the Communists. In a futile attempt to placate Goring, the German Social Democrats’ leader Otto Wels immediately resigned his seat on the International’s executive. 90 Such tactical concessions predictably did nothing to slow down the regime’s drive to suppress the left.91

The Communists and Social Democrats, taken together, represented nearly a third of the electorate. Yet they crumbled virtually without resistance. The government was able to move against them on a nationwide basis because the Reichstag fire decree permitted it to override the sovereignty of the federated states in order to carry out the operation, using the precedent of Papen’s removal of the Social Democratic minority government in Prussia the previous summer. Further back still, Reich President Ebert had done the same thing with the left-wing state governments in Saxony and Thuringia in 1923. The supposed Communist threat that justified the move was not particularly serious either in 1923 or ten years later. In 1933, the public disorder that supplied the reason for declaring a state of emergency was overwhelmingly the creation of the Nazis themselves. The purpose of this rapid co-ordination of the federated states was, not least, to overcome the hesitations of previous state governments in using emergency powers to crush the parties of the left with the thoroughness that the Nazi leadership in Berlin required.


This sequence of events had particularly sinister consequences in Bavaria. Here, the conservative state government in office on 28 February went along with the Reich government in banning Communist meetings and closing down the Communist press. It also arrested those it regarded as the leading figures in the regional Communist Party. But this was not enough for the Nazis, and on 9 March 1933, therefore, Frick appointed Adolf Wagner, the Nazi Regional Leader of Upper Bavaria, as State Commissioner in the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior. More ominously still, Heinrich Himmler, the Munich-based leader of the SS, was also immediately appointed Provisional Police President. He ordered a large-scale round-up of oppositional figures that soon began to encompass non-Communist enemies of the regime as well. Such was the scale of repression that state prisons and police cells proved completely inadequate. A new means of housing the Nazis’ political opponents in Bavaria had to be found. On 20 March, therefore, Himmler, announced to the press that ‘a concentration camp for political prisoners’ would be opened at Dachau, just outside Munich. It was to be Germany’s first concentration camp, and it set an ominous precedent for the future.

The camp was intended for the imprisonment in ‘protective custody’ of ‘all Communist and, where necessary, Reichsbanner and Social Democrat officials’, as the Nazi press reported the next day. On 22 March 1933 four police trucks ferried some two hundred prisoners from the state gaols at Stadelheim and Landsberg to the camp site, built around a disused factory on the outskirts of town. Citizens of Dachau gathered in the streets and outside the factory gates to watch them pass by. Initially run by a police detachment, the camp was put into the hands of the SS early in April, with the notoriously rough SS leader Hilmar Wäckerle as its commandant. Wäckerle introduced a regime of violence and terror at Himmler’s behest. On 11 April the new SS guards took four Jewish inmates out of the gates and shot them in the open, claiming that they were trying to escape; one of them managed to survive and was hospitalized in Munich, where he died; but not before providing the medical staff with such appalling details of the brutality that now reigned in the camp that they called in the public prosecutor. By the end of May, twelve of the inmates had been murdered or tortured to death. Corruption, extortion and embezzlement were rife among the guards, and the prisoners were exposed to arbitrary acts of cruelty and sadism in a world without regulations or rules.92

Himmler’s act set a widely imitated precedent. Soon, concentration camps were opening up all over the country, augmenting the makeshift gaols and torture centres set up by the brownshirts in the cellars of recently captured trade union offices. Their foundation was given wide publicity, ensuring that everyone knew what would happen to those who dared oppose the ‘national revolution’. The idea of setting up camps to house real or supposed enemies of the state was not in itself, of course, new. The British had used such camps for civilians on the opposing side in the Boer War, in which conditions were often very poor and death rates of inmates high. Shortly afterwards, the German army had ‘concentrated’ 14,000 Herero rebels in camps in South-West Africa during the war of 1904-7, treating them so harshly that 500 were said to be dying every month at the camps in Swakopmund and Lüderitz Bay. The camps had an eventual death rate of 45 per cent, justified by the German administration in terms of the elimination of ’unproductive elements’ in the native population.93 These precedents were familiar to the Nazis; in 1921, Hitler had already declared that they would imprison German Jews in ‘concentration camps’ along the lines of those used by the British. Paragraph 16 of the constitution that the Nazis had intended to put into effect if they had succeeded in seizing power in November 1923 had stated that ‘security risks and useless eaters’ would be put in ‘collection camps’ and made to work; anyone who resisted would be killed. More recently, the Nazi press had carried an article in August 1932 proclaiming that, on assuming power, the Nazis would ‘immediately arrest and condemn all Communist and Social Democratic functionaries ... [and] quarter all suspects and spiritual instigators in concentration camps’. This warning was repeated openly by Reich Interior Minister Frick on 8 March 1933.94 Dachau was not, therefore, an improvised solution to an unexpected problem of overcrowding in the gaols, but a long-planned measure that the Nazis had envisaged virtually from the very beginning. It was widely publicized and reported in the local, regional and national press, and served as a stark warning to anyone contemplating offering resistance to the Nazi regime.95

Conditions in the concentration camps and detention centres of the SA and SS in March and April have been aptly described as ‘a makeshift sadistic anarchy’.96 SA and SS violence seldom involved the refined, inventive kind of torture later practised by secret policemen in regimes like the military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile or Greece in the 1970s. What they vented on their prisoners was often barely controlled anger. Nothing much more sophisticated was involved in the torture than fists, jackboots, and rubber truncheons. On some occasions the police, now freed from any constraints they might have felt applied under the Weimar Republic, joined in, looked on, or employed their brownshirt auxiliaries to beat confessions out of their prisoners. The Communist worker Friedrich Schlotterbeck, arrested in 1933, reported later how he was interrogated at police headquarters by a group of SS men. They punched him in the face, beat him with rubber truncheons, tied him up, hit him over the head with a wooden bar, kicked him when he fell to the floor, and threw water over him when he lost consciousness. A police officer fired questions at him in the quieter moments, and intervened only when one of the SS men, enraged at Schlotterbeck’s vigorous physical resistance, pulled a revolver and threatened to shoot the prisoner. Having failed to confess, he was taken back to his cell, sore, covered in cuts and bruises, blood streaming down his face, and barely able to walk. Schlotterbeck was treated kindly by the warders, who none the less had to inform him that they had to keep the light on in his cell and check on him regularly in case he tried to kill himself. He was to spend the next decade and more in penitentiaries and concentration camps.97 His experience was not untypical of that of the committed Communist who refused to give in.

Social Democrats fared no better at the hands of the stormtroopers, who made no distinction of sex in their violent assaults on representatives of the left. One of many Social Democratic women who were attacked was Marie Jankowski, a city councillor for the Köpenick district in Berlin, who was arrested, beaten with rubber truncheons, hit in the face, and made to sign a document promising not to take part in politics again.98 The lack of any detailed central co-ordination of such activities, which were spread unevenly all across Germany, makes any precise estimation of their extent impossible. But available figures for formally registered arrests demonstrated beyond doubt that this was violence on a vast and unprecedented scale. Official reports indicated at least 25,000 arrests in Prussia alone in the course of March and April, though this figure omitted Berlin and did not count ‘wild’ arrests by brownshirts that were not reported to the authorities. Arrests carried out in Bavaria already numbered around 10,000 by the end of April, and twice as many by the end of June. Moreover, many of those arrested were imprisoned for only a few days or weeks before being released: in the Oranienburg camp, for instance, 35 per cent of the inmates were kept inside for between one and four weeks, and less than 0.4 per cent stayed for over a year.99 The 27,000 persons registered as being in protective custody across Germany at the end of July 1933 were thus, by and large, not the same people who had been in protective custody three or four months before, so that the total number of people who passed through the camps was far higher than this.100 In addition, by no means all the Nazis’ Social Democratic and, especially, Communist opponents had been taken off to the camps; many thousands more had been put in state prisons and police cells across the Reich.

The sheer scale of the repression can be gauged by the fact that the Communist Party leadership reported that 130,000 party members had been arrested and imprisoned by the end of 1933, and 2,500 had been murdered. These figures were probably something of an exaggeration, but they did not deceive when it came to estimating the impact of the repression on the party’s organization. In the Ruhr area, for example, almost half the entire party membership was taken into custody. As early as the end of March, the Prussian police reported that some 20,000 Communists had been seized and put into gaol.101 Even the most conservative, quasi-official reckoning put the total number of political arrests in Germany in 1933 at over 100,000, and the number of deaths in custody at nearly 600.102 This was violence and murder on a staggering level, not seen in Germany since the early days of the Weimar Republic.

This massive, brutal and murderous assault on the Nazis’ opponents was formally sanctioned by the Reichstag fire decree, which, however, was based on the idea that the Communists had been attempting a revolutionary uprising, and had nothing to say about the Social Democrats. The idea that the Social Democrats sympathized with or supported the Communists’ preparations for an uprising was even more absurd than the claim that the Communists had been about to stage one. Yet many middle-class Germans appear to have accepted that the regime was justified in its violent repression of ‘Marxism’, of whatever variety. Years of beatings and killings and clashes on the streets had inured people to political violence and blunted their sensibilities. Those who had their doubts could not have failed to notice what the police and their Nazi stormtrooper auxiliaries were doing to the Nazis’ opponents in these weeks. Many of them must have paused for thought before voicing their disquiet. Anyone who was alarmed by the extent of the disorder may well have been reassured by Hitler’s public denunciation on 10 March 1933 of acts of violence against foreigners, which he blamed on Communist infiltrators in the SA, and his exhortation to the stormtroopers to stop ‘harassment of individuals, the obstruction of cars, and disruptions to business’.

However, Hitler went on to tell the brownshirts, they must ‘never let yourselves be distracted for one second from our watchword, which is the destruction of Marxism’. ‘The national uprising will continue to be carried out methodically and under control from above,’ he said, and only ‘when these orders meet with resistance’ should they act to ensure that ‘this resistance be immediately and thoroughly broken’. This last qualification was of course licence enough to continue the violence unabated and, indeed, escalate it still further.103 When a leading Nationalist protested to Hitler on 10 March about the destruction of the legal order, followed by a phone call to the same effect by Papen on 19 March, Hitler angrily accused them of trying ‘to put a stop to the nationalist revolution’. The ‘November criminals’ of 1918 and those who had tried to suppress the Nazi Party during the Weimar period had been far worse, he said. Praising the ‘phenomenal discipline’ of the stormtroopers, he condemned at the same time the ‘weakness and cowardice of our bourgeois world in proceeding with kid gloves instead of the iron fist’ and warned that he would not let anyone stop him from the ‘annihilation and extirpation of Marxism’.104

Germany was well on the way to becoming a dictatorship even before the Reichstag fire decree and the elections of 5 March 1933. But these two events undoubtedly speeded it up and provided it with the appearance, however threadbare, of legal and political legitimation. After his election victory, Hitler told the cabinet on 7 March that he would seek a further legal sanction in the form of an amendment to the constitution that would allow the cabinet to bypass both the Reichstag and the President and promulgate laws on its own. Such a measure had precedents in aspects of emergency legislation under the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, it would clearly go much further than anything seen before. Hitler had long dreamed of introducing it.105 This Enabling Act would set the seal on the hated democracy of the Weimar Republic and complete the work of what the Nazis had begun on 30 January 1933 by calling into being a ‘government of nationalist concentration’. It was not long before Goebbels and the other leading Nazis had renamed it a ‘government of the nationalist uprising’. By early March it had become simply a ‘nationalist revolution’, emphasizing that far more than the actions of mere cabinet government was involved. Soon it was to be the ‘National Socialist Revolution’, finally consigning Hitler’s non-Nazi coalition partners to political oblivion.106

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