How significant was the Reichstag fire?

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  • If the suspect of the Reichstag fire was a young Dutch communist, then why did the Nazis round up another 4,000 communists? 
  • How significant for the Nazis was the ‘Decree for the Protection of People and State’?
  • Did these powers protect the lives and activities of ordinary people? If not, how did they affect people’s lives?
  • How did the SS and SA use the powers invested in them as a result of the Reichstag fire?
  • What could other political parties not do after the Reichstag fire? How might this have benefited the Nazis?

Just 24 hours after taking office, Hitler had called for new elections to be held on 5 March 1933. He felt that new elections would not only increase the Nazi share of the vote, but also increase his own status within the country.

Rather than the usual events of a democratic election, the SA and SS embarked on a violent campaign. In addition, Hermann Goering, a leading Nazi who had become head of the police in Bavaria, recruited 50,000 SA and SS members into the police. The ensuing campaign of violence and terror was waged against Communists and other Nazi opponents.

On 27 February 1933, just as the campaign moved into its final days, the Reichstag (Parliament building) was set on fire and burnt down. A young Dutch communist (Van der Lubbe), was arrested and imprisoned along with 4,000 other Communists.

Emergency powers

Hitler exploited the Reichstag fire. On 28 February, the ‘Decree for the Protection of People and State’ was drawn up by the Nazis and signed by Hindenburg. The ‘emergency’ powers contained within the decree marked the beginning of the breakdown in the democratic process.

In the aftermath of the fire, during the final week of the election the SS and SA arrested thousands more Communists and other enemies of the Nazis. The new powers meant that they could be imprisoned indefinitely without trial.

Again, using these new powers, the Nazis banned newspapers, leaflets and meetings of opponents. The ensuing violence led to the deaths of more than 50 people and injuries to many more.