Although the Nazis spoke of a “national revolution,” Hitler wanted to preserve the façade of legitimacy. Like his immediate predecessors in the chancellor’s office, he had used presidential emergency decrees to free himself from the political constraints imposed by the Reichstag. Now the time had come, however, for Hitler to attempt the opposite: to use the newly elected Reichstag to free himself from his dependence on emergency powers. The government thus put forward an elastic measure called the “Law to Remove the Distress of the People and the State,” also known as the “Enabling Act.” It had been drafted by Frick and approved by the cabinet. Stunning in its grasp, the bill provided a simpler path to lawmaking – the chancellor would prepare laws, the cabinet would enact them, and the official gazette [Reichsgesetzblatt] would publish them. Put differently, the measure would “enable” Hitler’s cabinet to pass legislation – even laws that departed from, contradicted, or altered the constitution – without Reichstag approval. The only restriction was that future laws passed under the Enabling Act had to leave the Reichstag, the Reichsrat (parliament’s less powerful upper house, which was composed of representatives of the states), and the powers of the president intact. This restriction, however, was incongruous with the act itself, which promised to seriously undermine all of the aforementioned powers.
To pass the Enabling Act, which modified provisions of the constitution, the government needed a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. On March 23, 1933, most of the newly elected Reichstag deputies – at least those who were not under arrest – convened in Berlin’s Kroll Opera House for the opening session. (The gutted Reichstag building was out of commission.) No Communist deputies were present that day, since all of them had either been arrested or forced into hiding. Likewise, twenty-six Social Democratic deputies failed to materialize because they were either in prison or in hiding. The remaining 94 were present, however. In his opening speech, Hitler vowed to crush Marxism and punish treason with barbaric ruthlessness. Misled by Hitler’s promises to respect the rights of Catholics and fearful of the consequences of defying the government, a divided Center Party voted internally to approve the Enabling Act and to impose uniformity (fraction discipline) on its 73 deputies. Hitler’s government now had the votes it needed.
Social Democratic (SPD) leaders had never been inclined to use violence to protest illegal measures, and they felt it was simply too late – and too dangerous – to call for it at that point. With Brownshirts and SS men literally occupying the building, longtime SPD Chairman Otto Wels (1873-1939) delivered a courageous speech in which he held to his party’s principles and goals. Unmoved, Hitler had nothing but insults and revilements for the Social Democrats. The Enabling Act passed by a vote of 441 to 94, with SPD deputies supplying the only “no” votes. Without further discussion, the Reichsrat voted unanimously in favor of the bill. Originally set to expire on April 1, 1937, the Enabling Act was eventually extended and remained in effect for the duration of the Third Reich.
With the passage of the Enabling Act, the National Socialists dealt a final legal blow to German democracy. Thereafter, it was impossible for any other political party to retain a shred of power or influence. Cabinet members who were not party members (e.g., Hugenberg) eventually resigned their posts or were replaced. Over the summer of 1933, the Nazi Party implemented a series of steps that led to the abolition of all other parties.