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Enabling Act of 1933
The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz in German) was passed by Germany's parliament (the Reichstag) on March 23, 1933 and signed by President Paul von Hindenburg the same day. It was the second major step after the Reichstag Fire Decree through which the National Socialists obtained emergency powers using largely legal means. The Act enabled the cabinet under Chancellor Adolf Hitler to enact laws without the participation of the Reichstag.
Enabling Act text
As with most of the laws passed in the process of Gleichschaltung, the Enabling Act is quite short. It is therefore reproduced in full in German and English:
|Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich||Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Empire|
|Der Reichstag hat das folgende Gesetz beschlossen, das mit Zustimmung des Reichsrats hiermit verkündet wird, nachdem festgestellt ist, daß die Erfordernisse verfassungsändernder Gesetzgebung erfüllt sind:||The Reichstag has enacted the following law, which is hereby proclaimed with the assent of the Reichsrat, it having been established that the requirements for a constitutional amendment have been fulfilled:|
|Artikel 1||Article 1|
|Reichsgesetze können außer in dem in der Reichsverfassung vorgesehenen Verfahren auch durch die Reichsregierung beschlossen werden. Dies gilt auch für die in den Artikeln 85 Abs. 2 und 87 der Reichsverfassung bezeichneten Gesetze.||In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the constitution.|
|Artikel 2||Article 2|
|Die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Reichsgesetze können von der Reichsverfassung abweichen, soweit sie nicht die Einrichtung des Reichstags und des Reichsrats als solche zum Gegenstand haben. Die Rechte des Reichspräsidenten bleiben unberührt.||Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain undisturbed.|
|Artikel 3||Article 3|
|Die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Reichsgesetze werden vom Reichskanzler ausgefertigt und im Reichsgesetzblatt verkündet. Sie treten, soweit sie nichts anderes bestimmen, mit dem auf die Verkündung folgenden Tage in Kraft. Die Artikel 68 bis 77 der Reichsverfassung finden auf die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Gesetze keine Anwendung.||Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor and announced in the Reich Gazette. They shall take effect on the day following the announcement, unless they prescribe a different date. Articles 68 to 77 of the Constitution do not apply to laws enacted by the Reich government.|
|Artikel 4||Article 4|
|Verträge des Reiches mit fremden Staaten, die sich auf Gegenstände der Reichsgesetzgebung beziehen, bedürfen für die Dauer der Geltung dieser Gesetze nicht der Zustimmung der an der Gesetzgebung beteiligten Körperschaften. Die Reichsregierung erläßt die zur Durchführung dieser Verträge erforderlichen Vorschriften.||Treaties of the Reich with foreign states which affect matters of Reich legislation shall not require the approval of the bodies of the legislature. The government of the Reich shall issue the regulations required for the execution of such treaties.|
|Artikel 5||Article 5|
|Dieses Gesetz tritt mit dem Tage seiner Verkündung in Kraft. Es tritt mit dem 1. April 1937 außer Kraft, es tritt ferner außer Kraft, wenn die gegenwärtige Reichsregierung durch eine andere abgelöst wird.||This law takes effect with the day of its proclamation. It loses force on 1 April 1937 or if the present Reich government is replaced by another.|
The Enabling Act was passed by the Reichstag on March 23 and proclaimed by the government the following day. Following constitutional procedure for legislation, the law was countersigned by President von Hindenburg, Chancellor Hitler, Minister of Interior Frick, Foreign Minister von Neurath, and Minister of Finance von Krosigk.
The burning of the Reichstag six days before the election resulted in the Reichstag Fire Decree, which (among other things) suspended civil liberties and habeas corpus rights. Hitler used the decree to have the Communist Party's offices raided and its representatives arrested, effectively eliminating them as a political force.
Although receiving five million more votes than in the previous election, the NSDAP had failed to gain an absolute majority in parliament, depending for a slim majority on the 52 seats won by its coalition partner, the German National People's Party.
To free himself from this dependency, Hitler had the cabinet in its first post-election meeting on March 15 draw up plans for an Enabling Act, which would give the cabinet legislative power for four years. The National Socialists devised the Enabling Act to gain complete political power without the need of the support of a majority in the Reichstag and without the need to bargain with their coalition partners.
Preparations and negotiations
The Act allowed the cabinet 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 and thus its adoption required a two-thirds majority, with at least two-thirds of deputies attending the session.
Social Democrats and the Communists were expected to vote against the Act. The government had already arrested all Communist and some Social Democrats deputies under the Reichstag Fire Decree. The National Socialists expected the parties representing the middle class, the Junkers and business interests to vote for the measure, as they had grown weary of the instability of the Weimar Republic and would not dare to resist.
Hitler also felt certain that he could win over the remaining Centre Party, needed to obtain the two-thirds majority.
Hitler negotiated with the Centre Party's chairman, Ludwig Kaas, a Catholic priest, finalizing an agreement by March 22. Kaas agreed to support the Act in exchange for the protection of Catholics' civil and religious liberties, religious schools and the retention of civil servants affiliated with the Centre Party.
Some historians, such as Klaus Scholder, have maintained that Hitler also promised to negotiate a Reichskonkordat with the Holy See, a treaty that formalised the position of the Catholic church in Germany on a national level. Kaas was a close associate of Cardinal Pacelli, then Vatican Secretary of State (and later Pope Pius XII). Pacelli had been pursuing a German concordat as a key policy for some years but the instability of Weimar governments as well as the enimity of some parties to such a treaty rendered the project moot. The day after the Enabling Act vote Kaas went to Rome in order to, in his own words, "investigate the possibilities for a comprehensive understanding between church and state". However, so far no evidence for a link between the Enabling Act and the Reichskonkordat has surfaced.
Passing of the Enabling Act
Debate within the Centre Party continued until the day of the vote, March 23, with Kaas advocating voting in favour of the act, referring to an upcoming written guarantee from Hitler, while former Chancellor Heinrich Brüning called for a rejection of the Act. The majority sided with Kaas and Brüning agreed to maintain party discipline by voting for the Act.
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats initially planned to hinder the passage of the Act by boycotting the Reichstag session, rendering that body short of the quorum (two thirds) needed to vote on a constitutional amendment. The Reichstag, however, led by its President, Hermann Göring, changed its rules of procedure, allowing the President to declare that any deputy who was "absent without excuse" was to be considered as present, in order to overcome obstructions. Because of this procedural change, the Social Democrats were obliged to attend the session, and committed to voting against the Act.
Later that day, the Reichstag assembled under intimidating circumstances, with SA men swarming inside and outside the chamber. Hitler's speech, which emphasised the importance of Christianity in German culture, was aimed particularly at appeasing the Centre Party's sensibilities and incorporated Kaas' requested guarantees almost verbatim. Kaas gave a speech, voicing the Centre's support for the bill amid "concerns put aside", while Brüning notably remained silent. Only the Social Democratic chairman Otto Wels spoke against the Act. Kaas had still not received the written constitutional guarantees he had negotiated, but with the assurance it was being "typed up", voting began. Kaas never received the letter.
At this stage, the majority of parties already supported the bill, and any deputies who might have been reluctant to vote in favour were intimidated by the SA troops surrounding the meeting. In the end, all parties except the SPD voted in favour of the Enabling Act. With the Communist delegates removed and 26 SPD deputies arrested or in hiding, the final vote was 441 supporting the Enabling Act to 94 (all Social Democrats) opposed. The Reichstag had adopted the Enabling Act with 83% of the deputies. After it had been also approved of by the Reichsrat, the Act was signed into law.
Under the Act, the government had acquired the authority to pass laws without either parliamentary consent or control. Unprecedentedly, these laws could even deviate from the Constitution. The Act effectively eliminated the Reichstag as active player in German politics, though the existence of the body, alongside that of the Reichsrat and of the office of President were protected under the Act. Together with the Reichstag Fire Decree, it formed the legal and constitutional basis for the Third Reich.
The Act also effectively removed Presidential oversight, as Hindenburg's representative had stated that the aged president was withdrawing from day-to-day affairs of government and that presidential collaboration on the laws decreed as a result of the Enabling Act would not be required.
During the negotiations between the government and the Centre Party, it was agreed that the government should inform the Reichstag parties of legislative measures passed under the Enabling Act. For this purpose, a working committee was set up, chaired by Hitler and the Centre's chairman Kaas. However, this committee met only three times without any major impact.
Though the Act had formally given legislative powers to the government as a whole, these powers were for all intents and purposes exercised by Hitler himself; as Joseph Goebbels wrote shortly after the passage of the Enabling Act:
- The authority of the Führer has now been wholly established. Votes are no longer taken. The Führer decides. All this is going much faster than we had dared to hope.
Formal cabinet meetings were rare during the whole Third Reich and did not occur at all after the outbreak of the Second World War.
The passage of the Enabling Act reduced the Reichstag to a mere stage for Hitler's speeches. All parties except the NSDAP were banned or pressured into dissolving themselves, followed on July 14 by a law that proscribed the founding of political parties. By this, Hitler had fulfilled what he had promised in earlier campaign speeches: "I set for myself one aim ... to sweep these thirty parties out of Germany!".
The Enabling Act was formally extended twice by the Reichstag beyond its original 1937 expiration date.