The Enabling Act was passed on March 23rd 1933. The act was to have huge consequences for the citizens of Nazi Germany. The formal title for the Enabling Act was the ‘Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich’
Hitler had been appointed Chancellor on January 30th 1933. However, he had no intention of acting within a participatory democracy. His plans included the abolition of other political parties with all political powers placed into his hands. Hitler was helped in this by the Reichstag Fire. This put the government building out of use and for the German Parliament to function it needed a suitable building to replace it. The Kroll Opera House was used. It was a convenient choice. It was small enough to make any SA presence look very menacing if Reichstag members were not going to vote accordingly.
However, Hitler could not be sure that the bill would be passed. The March 5th 1933 election had clearly shown that the Nazis were not as popular as Hitler would have wished. They only gained a majority of Deputy seats with the help of the German National Peoples Party. The Communists were no longer an issue as their leaders had been arrested and the party banned after it was blamed for the Reichstag fire. Hitler hoped that the other nationalists would be persuaded to vote for the act. It was the Centre Party that concerned him the most as he felt that those who did not want to vote for the act would rally around the Centre Party. Therefore he made a deal with the party – he would protect all of the rights that Catholics had in Germany as well as foster better relations with the Vatican. It was good enough for the Centre’s party leader, Ludwig Kaas, who advocated that the party support the bill. The only party that did not support the bill was the Social Democrats. They planned to sabotage the proceedings.
German constitutional law stated that any change to the constitution (and the Enabling Act was seen as a change to it) had to have a vote at which 66% of the Reichstag Deputies had to be present. Of these the vote needed to be 66% or over – not the usual bare majority. The Social Democrats knew that if they boycotted the vote, there would not be the required 66% of Reichstag Deputies at the vote – therefore any result would be deemed unconstitutional. The Nazis got around this with ease. The President of the Reichstag was Hermann Goering. He introduced a new procedure that made irrelevant the proposed move of the Social Democrats. Goering’s new procedure was to deem present any Reichstag Deputy who was not at the session but who did not have a good reason not to be there. In fact, 26 Social Democrat Deputies were in hiding for their lives – but as they could not present to the Reichstag a good reason for not being there they were counted as present.
The final vote for the Enabling Act was 444 for and 94 against. All the constitutional criteria for Deputies being present were there and the Enabling Act was signed into law.
All those who voted against the act were Social Democrats – a brave thing to do when it is considered that the opera house was flooded with SA men who had a deserved reputation for being thugs. The party leader, Otto Wels, openly spoke out against the bill and called on others not to vote for it.
The Enabling Act allowed the Cabinet to introduce legislation without it first going through the Reichstag. Basically the Reichstag Deputies voted to allow themselves to be bypassed. Any legislation passed by the Cabinet did not need presidential approval either. The act had a lifespan of four years before it had to be renewed via the Reichstag – something that happened on two separate occasions with an even more Nazified Reichstag and with what was effectively open voting.
Just how significant was the Enabling Act? Shortly after the bill became law, Joseph Goebbels wrote that Hitler now had full power to push Germany forward. He made no mention of the Cabinet. In fact, there was no Cabinet input in the sense that a modern Cabinet would expect to function. For example, Hitler had given the Centre Party his full guarantee that their power would be protected if they supported the Enabling Act. On July 14th 1933, all political parties other than the Nazi Party were banned on the orders of Hitler. It was generally thought that it took just 24 hours to put into legislation something that Hitler had ordered. The Enabling Act also protected the position of President. Such was Hitler’s power that when Hindenburg died in August 1934, he simply merged the positions of Chancellor and President and created the position of Fűhrer even though interfering with the position of the President was not allowed even by the terms of the Enabling Act.