Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. – James 1:16 (NIV)
“Don’t know much about history” was a hit song in 1960, and even among those today who really “don’t know much about history,” most recognize the name Adolph Hitler as the evil, bloodthirsty Nazi dictator from WWII.
However, what many don’t know is that Hitler, even though he soon became the tyrant of Nazi Germany, did not come to power illegally or by force. After a series of complicated negotiations, the aging, increasingly feeble-minded German President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to be German Chancellor by legal means on January 30, 1933. (In the German system, the chancellor is the head of government and actually has more power than the president, which is a more ceremonial post.)
Even though Hitler was Chancellor, he could not be dictator yet, because Germany still had a functioning democracy with several parties competing in the Parliament. With new elections set for early March 1933, the Nazis quickly set about to suppress their political opposition and the free press.
Standing in central Berlin, the imposing Reichstag structure was and still is today the Capitol building for the German government. On the night of February 27–less than one month after Hitler became Chancellor–a fire broke out in the building, causing some $1 million in damages before firefighters could extinguish the flames.
Police arrested Marinus van der Lubbe, an unemployed, 24-year-old Dutch bricklayer with Communist sympathies, at the scene. He confessed to having set the fire.
Even among historians today, the origins of the Reichstag fire are sketchy and disputed. It seems van der Lubbe was involved in the arson somehow, but other evidence points to the Nazis framing him as a scapegoat. Regardless, Hitler and the Nazis immediately used the fire as a pretext to take over complete power in Germany.
Within a few hours after the fire, Nazi propagandists portrayed the Communists as a direct threat and in the guise of “We have to protect the country and the government!” persuaded Hindenburg to give Hitler dictatorial powers to ban freedom of speech, freedom of the press, restrictions on police powers, etc. With those sweeping new powers, the Nazis first launched attacks to wipe out the Communist party of Germany, then all the other parties too, leaving Germany as a one-party state, and that one party was, tragically, the Nazi Party.
On March 23, the Reichstag (German Parliament) passed the infamous “Enabling Act” which gave full powers to one man, Hitler. Note that within less than 60 days of Hitler’s legal appointment of becoming chancellor, he destroyed the German democracy and set up a tyrannical dictatorship that lasted 12 years, and it took the horrors of WWII to end it.
When I read William Shirer’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, what particularly shocked me was the chapter “The Nazification of Germany.” Shirer explained how, in a relatively short time, Germany went from being a land of cultured democracy, science, and education to becoming a brainwashed nation that Hitler used to plunge the world into global conflict.
Shirer pointed out how, step by step, the Nazis gradually took over more and more of German life and thinking, and how each new step seemed to make logical sense to most Germans, based on the last step they had just taken.
Maybe you have heard “the frog in the kettle” story. You don’t plunge a frog into boiling water, lest he jump out. Instead, you gradually increase the water temperature one degree at a time, until the frog is unable to jump, then the frog is boiled to death. This story is NOT advocating cruelty against animals, but is a warning to be on our guard, especially against gradual threats.
What might this have to do with us today? Stay tuned.
– Scott Dreyer