A state of emergency

The Reichstag Fire Decree was a legislative act passed by the German government in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire on 27th February 1933.

The fire, which took place in the Reichstag building, which housed the German parliament, was used as a pretext by the government to declare a state of emergency and to assert that the country was in a state of crisis.

The Reichstag Fire of 1933.

National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons



Hitler had only been appointed Chancellor of Germany four weeks before, on 30 January 1933, when President von Hindenburg invited him to lead a coalition government. Hitler's government had urged von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and hold elections on March 5, 1945.

The Reichstag chambers caught fire on the evening of 27th February 1933, six days before the parliamentary election. While the exact circumstances of the fire remain unknown to this day, it is clear that Hitler and his supporters quickly used the fire to catalyse their consolidation of power.

Hitler almost immediately blamed the fire on the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), believing that the fire would lead to more Germans supporting the Nazis.

Hundreds of Communists were imprisoned within hours of the fire. The next day, officials in Hermann Göring's Prussian Ministry of the Interior discussed ways to provide legal cover for the arrests. 

A KPD march in Germany, 1930.

The chief of the Prussian state police, Ludwig Grauert, proposed an emergency presidential decree under Weimar Constitution Article 48, which gave the president the authority to take any measure necessary to protect public safety without the consent of the Reichstag. Most civil liberties would have been suspended under the guise of preventing further Communist violence.

When the proposed decree was presented to the Reich Cabinet, Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, the only Nazi with a portfolio in the cabinet, added a clause allowing the cabinet to take over state governments if they failed to maintain order.

Notably, the cabinet would have been given the authority to do so. Frick was well aware that the Interior portfolio had been given to the Nazis because it was virtually powerless; unlike his counterparts in the rest of Europe, he had no authority over the police. He saw an opportunity to expand his control over the states and thus begin the process of Nazification of the country.

Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick. His actions enabled the Nazification of Germany.

Hitler declared at an emergency cabinet meeting that the fire required "ruthless confrontation of the KPD"—a confrontation that could not be "made dependent on judicial considerations." Despite the objections of Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen to the clause granting the Reich cabinet the power to take over state governments if necessary, the decree was approved. President von Hindenburg quickly signed the decree into law.

Emergency measures

The Reichstag Fire Decree was introduced by Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his government on 28th February 1933, just one day after the fire took place. The decree was enacted as an emergency measure in response to the fire, and it gave the government the power to take a range of actions to restore order and protect the state.

The key policies of the Reichstag Fire Decree were:

  • Suspension of civil liberties: The decree authorized the government to suspend civil liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, in order to restore order and protect the state.
  • Authority to make arrests: The government was given the power to arrest individuals suspected of being involved in the fire or of plotting to overthrow the government.
  • Authority to seize publications: The government was authorized to seize publications that it deemed to be hostile to the state or that posed a threat to public order.
  • Expansion of police powers: The decree expanded the powers of the police, including the authority to make arrests and to search homes and businesses without a warrant.

The final issue of Das Andere Deutschland's - a weekly newspaper established in Germany in 1925 to advocate republican and pacifist causes, The cover announces its own prohibition (Verbot) by the police authorities on the basis of the Reichstag fire decree

Public domain

The decree was divided into six articles.

  • Article 1 suspended most of the civil liberties enshrined in the Weimar Constitution indefinitely, including habeas corpus, inviolability of residence, post and telephone secrecy, freedom of expression and of the press, the right to public assembly and free association, and the protection of property and the home.
  • Articles 2 and 3 gave the Reich government authority that was normally reserved for the federal states.
  • Articles 4 and 5 imposed harsh penalties for specific offences, including the death penalty for arson against public buildings.
  • Article 6 simply stated that the decree went into effect on the day it was issued.


The decree was not accompanied by any written guidelines from the Reich government; this omission gave Nazis like Göring free rein in interpreting the decree as Prussian interior minister and commander of Germany's largest police force.

The Länder (German states) that were not yet under Nazi control largely limited themselves to prohibiting the Communist press, Communist meetings and demonstrations, and detaining top KPD officials.

In Prussia, however, summary arrests of KPD leaders were common, thousands were imprisoned in the days after the fire, and the total number of arrests in Prussia on the basis of the Reichstag Fire Decree in the two weeks following 28 February is estimated to be in the 10,000 range.

Göring had used such tactics prior to the decree, only to have them overturned by the courts—a check that no longer existed with the decree in place.

KPD election poster, 1932. The caption at the bottom reads: "An end to this system!". The Reichstag Fire Decree resulted in a large number of communists being arrested and the KPD being suppressed by the Nazi's.

Public domain

Wilhelm Pieck

Public domain

KPD chairman Ernst Thälmann was among the German communists arrested under the Reichstag Fire Decree, while KPD founding members Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht—later to be leaders in postwar East Germany—were among those who escaped arrest and lived in exile.

On March 3, Göring issued a directive to Prussian police authorities, stating that, in addition to the constitutional rights removed by the decree, "all other restraints on police action imposed by Reich and State law" were abolished "to the extent that this is necessary... to achieve the purpose of the decree."

Within two weeks of the Reichstag Fire Decree going into effect, Reich Commissars were dispatched to take over the other states; the heavy-handed repression in Prussia quickly spread to the rest of the Reich.

Despite their vehement anti-Communist rhetoric, the Nazis did not immediately outlaw the KPD. They feared not only a violent insurrection, but also that the KPD's presence on the ballot would syphon votes away from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

While the KPD won 81 seats, it was an open truth that the deputies would never be permitted to assume their seats; they were arrested as soon as the police could find them. The courts were increasingly treating KPD membership as an act of treason. As a result, the KPD was effectively banned as of March 6, the day following the election.

KPD Membership badge, 1930's.

The Enabling Act, passed just over three weeks after the Reichstag Fire Decree, cemented Hitler's grip on Germany even further. This act gave Hitler's cabinet the authority to issue decrees without the approval of the Reichstag, thereby granting Hitler dictatorial powers.

To leave nothing to chance, the Nazis did not even count the jailed KPD deputies to determine quorum. They also detained several SPD deputies under the grounds of the Reichstag Fire Decree. Many more went into exile.

In theory, Article 48 empowered the Reichstag to demand the repeal of the measures enacted to implement the Reichstag Fire Decree. However, any serious danger of it being cancelled ended in July; by then, the other parties had been either officially outlawed or bullied into folding, and the Nazi Party had been deemed the only legal party in Germany.

The Reichstag Fire Decree remained in effect throughout the Nazi era, allowing Hitler to rule under martial law. It, together with the Enabling Act, provided the legal foundation for Hitler's rule. Thousands of Hitler's decrees, including those that made Germany a one-party state, were explicitly based on its authority, and thus on Article 48.

This was a significant reason Hitler never formally repealed the Weimar Constitution, even though it no longer had any substantive value after the Enabling Act was passed.

International response

The international response to the Reichstag Fire Decree was mixed. Some countries, particularly those in Europe, were concerned about the suspension of civil liberties and the expansion of police powers in Germany. However, many other countries were more concerned about the perceived threat posed by Communist elements in Germany, and they supported the government's actions as a necessary measure to restore order and protect the state.


The Reichstag Fire Decree had far-reaching consequences for the German people. The suspension of civil liberties paved the way for the establishment of a totalitarian state in Germany, and it was a critical step in the consolidation of Hitler's power. The decree gave the government the ability to arrest political opponents and to seize publications that were hostile to the state, and it paved the way for the implementation of many of the policies that would come to define the Nazi regime.

The Reichstag Fire Decree was officially enacted on 28th February 1933, and it remained in effect until 1st April 1933. Despite its relatively short duration, the decree was a critical moment in the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany, and it set the stage for the establishment of a totalitarian state in which individual rights were subordinated to the state.

Further reading