Onlookers in front of the Reichstag (German parliament) building after its virtual destruction by fire. Berlin, Germany, February 28, 1933.
Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz
On February 27, 1933, the German parliament (Reichstag) building burned down due to arson. The government falsely portrayed the fire as part of a Communist effort to overthrow the state.
Using emergency constitutional powers, Adolf Hitler’s cabinet had issued a Decree for the Protection of the German People on February 4, 1933. This decree placed constraints on the press and authorized the police to ban political meetings and marches, effectively hindering electoral campaigning. A temporary measure, it was followed by a more dramatic and permanent suspension of civil rights following the February 27 burning of the parliament building.
Though the origins of the fire are still unclear, in a propaganda maneuver, the coalition government (Nazis and the German Nationalist People's Party) blamed the Communists. They exploited the Reichstag fire to secure President von Hindenburg’s approval for an emergency decree, the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State of February 28. Popularly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree, the regulations suspended the right to assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other constitutional protections, including all restraints on police investigations.
Justified on the false premise that the Communists were planning an uprising to overthrow the state, the Reichstag Fire Decree permitted the regime to arrest and incarcerate political opponents without specific charge, dissolve political organizations, and to suppress publications. It also gave the central government the authority to overrule state and local laws and overthrow state and local governments.
The Nazi press described the Reichstag fire as the work of the Communists and a signal for their planned uprising. Even the US independent Fox Movie Tones newsreel reflected the German government version. Although the Communists had not, in fact, developed any plans for an uprising, the impact of propaganda and terror on existing fears of a Communist takeover convinced many Germans that Hitler’s decisive action had saved the nation from “Bolshevism.”
Within months, for example, the Nazi regime destroyed Germany’s previously vigorous free press. By 1941, the Nazi Party’s Eher publishing house had become the largest ever in German history, and its main daily newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter (The National Observer) had reached a circulation of over 1,000,000.