Hitler turns Germany into a dictatorship. After the fire at the Reichstag building, the Nazi regime begins to pursue political opponents. Jews begin to suffer the Nazis’ antisemitism. They face discriminatory rules, violence and boycotts.

Establishment of the Nazi dictatorship

Aufmarsch am Abend der Machtergreifung Hitlers
The SA parades past the chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin, on 30 January 1933 Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1982-004-13A
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After Hitler becomes Reich chancellor he draws additional powers to himself. He and his followers use the arson attack on the Reichstag to get rid of the communists and social democrats. They imprison them in concentration camps. The Nazis have turned Germany into a dictatorship and the antisemitic regime targets Jews with violence and intimidation.

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Hitler becomes chancellor

During the evening of 30 January 1933 national socialists parade through Berlin’s government district. They are celebrating that their leader, Adolf Hitler, has been appointed chancellor. They march through the streets carrying flaming torches. Hitler receives their cheers from the balcony of the chancellery.

Germany has been in crisis since 1930. It is so politically divided that it has been impossible to form a goverment with a parliamentary majority. Several governments collapse and each time new elections have to be called. To rule, the cabinets are dependent on the Reich president, Paul von Hindenburg. On 6 November 1932 the country goes to the polls once again. Hitler’s party, the NSDAP, gets fewer votes than it had at elections that July, but still a third of all the votes cast. Hindenburg can no longer ignore Hitler and appoints him chancellor. Hitler is now the head of government.

Adolf Hitler waves to an enthusiastic crowd in Berlin after his appointment as chancellor of the German Reich. Collectie Anne Frank Stichting / Deutschland Erwacht

The many Germans with Nazi sympathies are delighted with Hitler’s appointment. They hope that he will lead Germany out of the crisis. Others do not expect the latest new government to last long either and are unconcerned about the change. The Nazis’ political opponents expect trouble. Jews are most fearful about the future. For years, Hitler has loudly expressed his antipathy to them. Many Jews start planning to emigrate.

The Reichstag fire and elections

Fire breaks out in the Reichstag, the German parliament in Berlin, on 27 February 1933. The building is partially destroyed. Guards capture the suspected arsonist at the scene. He is a Dutch communist called Marinus van der Lubbe. The Nazis execute him in 1934, after a show trial. Whether he was acting alone is still not known.

To the Nazis, the arson attack offers a handy excuse to get rid of political opponents, the communists and social democrats. Hitler convinces his cabinet that the fire was part of an attempted communist coup. Hindenburg declares a state of national emergency. Civil liberties are restricted. Freedom of speech, right of assembly, and privacy of correspondence are suspended. The government is also given more investigative powers. Hitler and his henchmen abuse these to persecute their political opponents.

Arrestatie van communisten door SA, de dag na de verkiezingen.
Communists being arrested by SA troops the day after the elections of March 5th, 1933. © Bundesarchiv, Bild_102-02920A

In this climate of intimidation, new elections are held again a week later, on 5 March. Nazi posters and flags dominate the streets. The NSDAP wins with 43.9 per cent of the vote. It isn’t the landslide victory the Nazis want. Two leftwing parties, the KPD and SPD, together have 30 per cent of the votes. But they are powerless. Many of their supporters are in detention or have fled. They cannot prevent parliament passing an enabling law allowing Hitler to govern without parliament. Germany has become a dictatorship.

Violence, arrests and concentration camps

For Hitler’s opponents the effects of his appointment are disastrous. The mass arrests that began after the Reichstag fire, snowball after the election victory on 5 March. By April, tens of thousands of people have been held. Many are taken into ‘preventive detention’. This means they can be held without charge.

The prisons are not equipped for such huge numbers of prisoners. The Nazis deal with this by opening concentration camps for the detainees. In the little town of Dachau, near Munich, Heinrich Himmler opens a concentration camp on 20 March. The Nazis build camps in other places too: in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, and in Emsland, just over the Dutch border, they force prisoners to work digging peat. These camps are the start of the later concentration camp system.

Apart from solving the shortage of prison cells, the camps work as a deterrent. Prisoners are abused, tortured and sometimes killed. Jews and prominent prisoners are given a particularly hard time. Stories about the abuses in the camps are soon circulating among the population.

Boycott of Jewish goods

After the election victory and with the opposition disabled, the Nazi regime is firmly established. Hitler now turns his fire on the Jews. German Jews have suffered violence and harassment for some time, but mainly random acts by individual Nazis. Now, the government declares an anti-Jewish boycott.

There are two reasons why the Nazi government moves to official action at this point. The direct provocation is an appeal by American Jewish organisations. They call for a boycott of German products because of the discrimination and the abuse of Jews in Germany. The German boycott of Jewish goods is a response to this. However, the Nazi regime also wants to assert its leadership. Spontaneous Nazi attacks give the impression that Hitler cannot keep order, which might threaten his authority.

Boycot van Joodse winkels
An SA paramilitary and an SS officer outside a Berlin clothes store during the boycott of Jewish shops, 1 April 1933. © Bundesarchiv, Bild_102-14468

On 1 April 1933 SA men carrying placards with anti-Jewish slogans take up positions outside Jewish-owned shops. They prevent customers entering. The action is not a great success. Many Germans shrug their shoulders and the foreign press condemns the move. However, it is a key moment in the rise of anti-Jewish regulations. It shows plainly for the first time that the Nazi regime is prepared to make life impossible for Jews in Germany.

Within a few months the Nazis have established a dictatorship. Non-Jewish Germans who are not involved with politics have little to fear. Political opponents are much worse off. The Nazi government has imprisoned many of them, murdering some. Many Jews are victims of discriminatory regulations and violence.

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