How a fire turned a Democracy into a Dictatorship — Mistakes Were Made

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In early 1930s Germany faced severe economic woes because of the fallout of World War I. The Nazi party was gaining strength because of growing dissatisfaction with the ruling Weimer Republic. German President Paul von Hindenburg sought to make an alliance with the Nazis against left-wing opponents like the Communist party. Hindenburg asked Adolf Hitler to serve as Chancellor to seal the alliance.

As Chancellor, Hitlers first call of action was to ask Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag (lower house of republic legislature) and call for a new parliamentary election. Hitlers goals for his actions was to gain a Nazi majority in the Reichstag and remove his communist opposition. Hitler hoped to abolish democracy legally, by passing the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act is a law that gave the Chancellor the power to pass laws by decree and without the involvement of the Reichstag. To pass the Enabling Act required a two-thirds majority vote in the Reichstag. The Nazis currently had 32% of the seats. During the election campaign, the Nazis alleged that the Communist were trying to take over Germany, and the only way to stop them was by voting for the Nazi’s. The Nazi plan was simple, increase the number of Nazi seats so they could pass the Enabling Act.

On February 27, 1933, pedestrians heard breaking glass in the Reichstag. Flames soon engulfed the building. The fire destroyed the main chamber of the building and caused $1 million in damages. Police arrested Marinus van der Lubbe, an unemployed 24-year-old Dutch laborer with communist sympathies.

Walter Gempp was the head of the Berlin fire department at the time of the fire. Gempp was fired in March 1933, for presenting evidence that suggested the Nazis were involved in the fire. He asserted that there had been a delay in notifying the fire brigade and that they had forbidden him from making full use of the resources at his disposal. In 1937, Gempp was arrested for abuse of office and imprisoned. He was strangled and killed in prison in 1939.

Hours after the fire, Nazi propaganda spread fears of a communist revolt. Hitler convinced Hindenburg to invoke article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. The article gave the President dictatorial powers and allowed him to make laws for all of Germany’s territorial states. Nazis quickly drew up a permanent and expansive Decree named the Protection of the People and State. This law suspended the right to assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and other constitutional protections within Germany.

The new law also removed all restraints on police investigations. It allowed the Nazis to arrest and jail their political opponents at will. The night they instituted the law, the storm troopers rounded up 4,000 people, many were tortured or imprisoned.

On March 23, 1933, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which gave full legislative powers to Hitler. By the end of the year, all non-Nazi political parties, labor unions and other organizations had ceased to exist. Hindenburg died in 1934, and the German Army sanctioned Hitler’s decision to combine the posts of president and chancellor. The decision cemented his status as the dictator of Germany.

Lubbe was tried and convicted for the fire and beheaded in 1934. The Nazis blamed Lubbe and concluded he was part of a Communist conspiracy to burn the Reichstag and seize power. The Communist contended that Lubbe was part of a Nazi conspiracy to blame the crime on them. Since Hitler was chancellor, his theory won out.

In July 2019, an affidavit from 1955 about the fire was published by Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Redaktions Netzwerk Deutschland. In the affidavit, Hans-Martin Lennings, a former member of the Nazis paramilitary SA unit, stated that on the night of the fire, he and his SA group drove Lubbe from an infirmary to the Reichstag. When the group got to the Reichstag, they noticed “a strange smell of burning and there were clouds of smoke billowing through the rooms.”The statement suggests something already started the fire before Lubbe got to the Reichstag.

Lennings also stated that he and other members of his squad protested the arrest of Lubbe. He claimed he and other witnesses were detained and forced to sign a paper that denied any knowledge of the incident. They executed nearly all of those with knowledge of the fire, Lennings was tipped off about the executions and fled to Czechoslovakia.

Mistakes were Made:

If you ever wondered how a Democracy can morph into a dictatorship, look no further. Hitler wanted total power and initially played within the confines of the constitution. The problem was the process was moving too slowly. The Nazi’s came up with the Reichstag fire idea, which created this bogey man of Communism that scared the German citizens. Under this cover, Hitler changed or made new laws that put Germany on the road to a dictatorship.

The lessons learned from this story are to never give up your civil liberties for security. The promise of security is just an illusion. How many times do we trade our freedoms for job security or relationship security? You think you are making the logical decision, but then corporate downsizing happens or your partner changes their mind about being in a relationship, bye-bye security. One is better off keeping their liberties, because the big bad bogeyman you need to fear is actually the one promising you security.

The next lesson is the coverup is worse than the lie. Once the ball got rolling on the Reichstag fire conspiracy, there was no stopping it. People were killed, executed, or had to flee the country to hide the truth about the origins of the fire. The fire set up a perfect storm for Hitler and the Nazis to conduct a power grab they so desperately wanted. The strategy worked the Nazi’s gained control and well; you know the rest of history. It’s amazing and sad the steps a person or group will go through to gain and keep power. In their minds, the ends justify the means and whoever gets hurt or killed in the process are just casualties of war.

Examining the events that happened in America this week and over the last few months shows how vulnerable a Democracy can be when one man is intent on keeping power. I hope we can learn from these stories, that the real enemies of Democracy are the ones seeking to alter and change existing laws for their own personal gain.

Originally published at on January 8, 2021.

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recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on

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