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How did the Nazi consolidate their power?
Following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor the Nazis were finally in a position of power.
However, this power was limited, as the Nazis were just one party in a three party coalition government, under President Hindenburg.
This topic will explore how the Nazis managed to eliminate their opposition and consolidate ultimate power over Germany, whilst maintaining an illusion of democracy.
It will first explore this topic in chronological order, from the Reichstag Fire through to the death of President Hindenburg, and then explore it thematically in the last section.
The Reichstag Fire
On the 31 January 1933, Hitler, conscious of his lack of a majority in the Reichstag, immediately called for new elections to try and strengthen his position. The Nazis aimed to increase their share of the vote so that they would have a majority in the Reichstag. This would allow them to rule unopposed and unhindered by coalition governments.
Over the next two months, they launched themselves into an intense election campaign.
On 27 February 1933, as the campaign moved into its final, frantic days, the Reichstag, the German Parliament building, was set on fire and burnt down. An atmosphere of panic and terror followed the event.
This continued when a young Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe was arrested for the crime.
The Nazi Party used the atmosphere of panic to their advantage, encouraging anti-communism. Göring declared that the communists had planned a national uprising to overthrow the Weimar Republic. This hysteria helped to turn the public against the communists, one of the Nazis main opponents, and 4000 people were imprisoned.
The day after the fire, Hindenburg signed the Emergency Decree for the Protection of the German People.
On the 28 February 1933, President Hindenburg signed the Emergency Decree for the Protection of the German People. This decree suspended the democratic aspects of the Weimar Republic and declared a state of emergency.
This decree gave the Nazis a legal basis for the persecution and oppression of any opponents, who were be framed as traitors to the republic. People could be imprisoned for any or no reason.
The decree also removed basic personal freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, the right to own property, and the right to trial before imprisonment.
Through these aspects the Nazis suppressed any opposition to their power, and were able to start the road from democracy to a dictatorship.
The atmosphere of uncertainty following the Reichstag Fire secured many voters for the Nazi party.
The SA also ran a violent campaign of terror against any and all opponents of the Nazi regime. Many were terrified of voting of at all, and many turned to voting for the Nazi Party out of fear for their own safety. The elections were neither free or fair.
On the 5 March 1933, the elections took place, with an extremely high turnout of 89%.
The Nazis secured 43.9% of the vote, an improvement of almost 10% on the previous November’s election. Despite this improvement, the Nazis still did not command a majority in the Reichstag.
The Enabling Law
On the 23 March 1933, Hitler proposed the Enabling Law to the Reichstag. This new law gave Hitler the power to rule by decree rather than passing laws through the Reichstag and the president. If passed, the law would establish the conditions needed for dictatorial rule.
The atmosphere of terror that had followed the Reichstag Fire, and Hindenburg’s and von Papen’s support, made the proposal seem legitimate and, to some, necessary.
The law needed two thirds of the Reichstag to vote for it to pass. The Nazi’s had the support of the DNVP, and had banned the communist party, the KPD, from attending.
The SA and the SS had also been on a month long campaign of violence to scare or imprison other opponents to the party. They had placed many in the first concentration camp, Dachau, which opened just a few days before the vote on the 20 March 1933.
The Centre Party’s vote was crucial. After Hitler had promised to protect the interests of the Catholic Church, the party conceded and supported the bill. Only the SPD opposed it.
The Bill passed by 444 votes for to 94 against on the 24 March 1933.
Although President Hindenburg and the Reichstag continued to exist, Hitler could now govern by decree.
The Night of Long Knives
The Night of Long Knives, also known as the Röhm Putsch, was the purge of the SA leadership and other political opponents from the 30 June 1934 to the 2 July 1934. Carried out primarily by the SS and the Gestapo, over 150 people were murdered and hundreds more were arrested.
In August 1932 there were approximately 445,000 members of the SA. By June 1934 this had grown to over 3,000,000 members. They were often given a free rein on their activities and were violent and difficult to control.
Hitler feared that the SA and Ernst Röhm, their leader, were a potential threat to his leadership. This fear was intensified by Göring and Himmler, who gave Hitler news of Röhm organising a potential coup.
In addition to this, there was a mutual dislike between the traditional conservative elite – who maintained many key positions in the government and the army during the first years of the Third Reich – and the SA. During the years of the rise of the Nazi Party, the SA had been instrumental in helping the party to gain support.
However, following Hitler being elected chancellor, the SA, and particularly Röhm, were keen to continue the ‘revolution’ and replace the traditional conservative elite with Nazis. Hitler and the rest of the Nazi leadership disagreed with their approach. They understood the need to appear moderate and take over slowly by democratic means where possible, maintaining the stability and illusion of a democracy. The tension between the SA and the Nazi leadership grew.
On the 30 June 1930 these tensions came to a head. The leaders of the SA were ordered to attend a meeting at a hotel in Bad Wiesse, Bavaria. Hitler arrived and personally placed Röhm and other high ranking SA leaders under arrest.
Over the next two days, most of the SA leadership were placed under arrest and murdered without trial. Röhm, who was initially pardoned, was then given the choice of suicide or murder. Refusing to take his own life, he was shot on the 1 July 1932 by two SS guards.
Whilst the purge focused on the SA, the Nazis also used the event to eliminate other political opponents, such as the former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher.
The Night of the Long Knives (in addition to Hindenburg’s death a few months later) helped Hitler and the Nazi Party to consolidate absolute power in Germany by removing their political opposition.
From the 20 August onwards, the Reichswehr, who had previously been a separate organisation, now swore a personal allegiance to Hitler. The SA were dramatically reduced in size, dropping by 40% to 1.8 million by 1935.
Goebbels engineered the media coverage following the attack to present it as a preventative measure, in response to the SA’s ‘plan to overthrow the government’. As the SA were known for being violent and unruly, many saw this as a legitimate move by the government to ensure public order.
On the 13 July 1934 the Reichstag retrospectively approved a bill legalising the purge as emergency defense measures.
Gleichschaltung was the process of the Nazi Party taking control over all aspects of Germany. It is otherwise known as coordination or Nazification. The process primarily took place between 1933-1934.
The Nazi’s started with the Civil Service, issuing the Act for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on the 7 April 1933. This act legalised removing anyone of non-Ayran descent from the civil service.
In the judicial system specifically, this act removed any judges that were deemed non-compliant with Nazi laws or principles. This act was reinforced by the German Civil Service code of 26 January 1937, which retired any judges or judicial official who would not intervene in cases and rule in favour of the Nazis. The People’s Court, a court created by the Nazis in April 1934 with judges chosen specifically for their Nazi beliefs, replaced the Supreme Court. With these measures in place, the Nazification of the judicial system was complete.
Gleichschaltung was applied across every possible aspect of government policy.
To take control of cultural policy, the Nazis appointed Joseph Goebbels as Minister for Public Engagement and Propaganda on the 13 March 1933. Goebbels became responsible for controlling the national media, film, theatre, arts, and other cultural aspects. Goebbels soon radicalised each of these areas, ensuring that they advocated Nazi ideas.
Whilst Gleichschaltung aimed to reach every aspect of rule in Germany, this was not always possible. Local governments proved more difficult to infiltrate, and even at the end of 1945 only 60% of local mayors were Nazi Party members.
Despite this, on the whole, Gleichschaltung was largely successful. By the end of 1934, the Nazis had managed to infiltrate and take control of every major aspect of German government.
The death of President Hindenburg
President Hindenburg died at the age of 87 on the 2 August 1934.
Shortly after Hindenburg’s death, Hitler announced that offices of the chancellor and the president were to be combined to create one position, the Führer and chancellor. Hitler announced that he would occupy this new role.
On the 19 August 1934, the German people were asked to vote on whether or not they approved of the merging of the two offices and Hitler’s new role as Führer. 95.7% of the population voted. 89.93% voted in favour of Hitler.
With Hindenburg gone, there was no longer a limit to Hitler’s power. He was now a dictator.
Themes of Nazi consolidation
The Nazis consolidation of power can be grouped into three main themes: pseudo-legality, terror and intimidation and pseudo-moderation.
Germany feared revolution. As such, the Nazis’ consolidation of power relied on maintaining the illusion of a stable democracy. This essentially meant that the Nazis used the atmosphere of panic following the Reichstag Fire to put forward the Enabling Law. Once the Enabling Law was in place, the Nazis could bypass the Reichstag and rule by decree – seemingly creating laws that stabilised Germany and got rid of its ‘internal enemies’. In reality, the laws that the Nazi’s put forward secured their future as the sole ruling party in Germany.
The support of respected individuals such as von Papen and Hindenburg’s son, Oskar von Hindenburg, gave the Nazis further legitimacy for these actions.
The Nazis immediately used the Enabling Law to remove civil rights. This meant, as well as removing other personal freedoms, that the Nazis could now imprison their political opposition for an indefinite period for any, or no, reason. The Enabling Law allowed them to do this under the guise of legality. As such the Nazi’s justified this measure as implementing necessary security measures, rather than revealing their true motive – to remove opposition.
The Nazis’ also took several more steps to reduce their political opposition ‘legally’. On the 2 May 1933 trade unions were banned. Just two months later, on 14 July 1933 the Nazis used the Enabling Act to ban all political parties except the Nazi Party.
The Nazis also took steps to ensure they couldn’t be openly opposed in the press. On the 4 October 1933, it was declared that all editors must be Aryan. Censorship was heightened, and any person publishing actively anti-Nazi material was threatened or imprisoned. By 1935, over 1,600 newspapers had been closed.
These acts removed people’s ability to oppose the Nazi Party, in any form. However, it did so under the guise of legality, and ‘protecting’ the German people and their democracy.
Terror and intimidation
Whilst the pseudo-legal measures were one factor that helped the Nazi’s to consolidate power, another was terror and intimidation.
The Nazi’s used the SA and the newly expanded SS to harass and imprison any potential opponents of the Nazi Party. Following the Enabling Law, much of this harassment and imprisonment was legal.
In 1933, up to 200,000 people were seized and imprisoned by the SA and the SS. Prisons soon became stretched for space. The Nazis improvised. They used any space they could get their hands on to create temporary ‘camps’. The first concentration camp, Dachau, opened in a broken-down munitions factory on the 20 March 1933, imprisoning primarily political prisoners.
The camps were brutal and had extremely unsanitary conditions. Many of the prisoners were tortured and abused.
Many of those that were harassed by the SA and the SS or imprisoned in camps were terrified to speak out about their ordeal – fearing that they would be further abused or re-imprisoned.
Terror and intimidation became one of the main ways that the Nazis sought to control or suppress their opposition, and German’s in general.
The Nazis used the guise of moderation to conceal their rapid consolidation of power.
One key example of an event posed as moderate was the Night of Long Knives.
The Night of Long Knives was the purge of the SA leadership and other political opponents from the 30 June 1934 to the 2 July 1934. Over 150 people were murdered and hundreds more were arrested.
Following the purge, the Nazi’s sculpted the media coverage to portray the event as a preventative measure against a revolutionary, violent, and uncontrollable force, rather than a series of political murders.
Life in Nazi-controlled Europe
The Nazis came to power in 1933, and were defeated at the end of the Second World War in 1945.
During their twelve years in power their ideology and actions shaped almost every aspect of life in Germany and the countries that they occupied.
This section will give an overview of the Nazis’ Third Reich.