The Reichstag Warning

reichstag-fire
The shell of the Reichstag after the fire, Berlin, Germany, 1933. (photo: European/FPG/Getty Images)

The aspiring tyrants of today have not forgotten the lesson of 1933: that acts of terror — real or fake, provoked or accidental — can provide the occasion to deal a death blow to democracy.

By Timothy Snyder / The New York Review of Books
February 26, 2017

On February 27, 1933 the German Parliament building burned, Adolf Hitler rejoiced, and the Nazi era began. Hitler, who had just been named head of a government that was legally formed after the democratic elections of the previous November, seized the opportunity to change the system. “There will be no mercy now,” he exulted. “Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”

The next day, at Hitler’s advice and urging, the German president issued a decree “for the protection of the people and the state.” It deprived all German citizens of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly and made them subject to “preventative detention” by the police. A week later, the Nazi party, having claimed that the fire was the beginning of a major terror campaign by the Left, won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections. Nazi paramilitaries and the police then began to arrest political enemies and place them in concentration camps. Shortly thereafter, the new parliament passed an “enabling act” that allowed Hitler to rule by decree.

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