Saturday, March 23, 2013

80 years ago: German Reichstag passes the Enabling Act

On March 23, 1933, the German Reichstag passed Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the State), popularly known as the Enabling Act, handing over its legislative powers, including the approval of treaties with foreign nations and the initiation of constitutional amendments, to Adolf Hitler's cabinet for four years.

According to William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), "...the act stipulated that the laws enacted by the cabinet were to be drafted by the Chancellor and "might deviate from the constitution." No laws were to "affect the position of the Reichstag"--surely the cruelest joke of all--and the powers of the President remained "undisturbed."" Under the act's terms, Mr. Hitler and the Nazis could ignore the civil liberties provisions in the German constitution and issue decrees without having them passed by parliament.

Only the Social Democratic delegates voted against the act, the Communists having been imprisoned. Centrist and moderate rightist parties voted in favour of the act as a "lesser of evils." Some may notice a similarity between the Enabling Act and the Patriot Act in the United States--a terrorist act of dubious origin leads to legislative approval for dictatorial powers for the executive branch of government, and the abolition of civil liberties. There is one significant difference between the two: The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 is 132 pages long, whereas Germany's Enabling Act of 1933 consisted of just five paragraphs, implying that the German legislators had actually read the bill they were voting on.

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