Suppressing Dissent and Criminalizing the Opposition

The scary new world we find ourselves in is nothing new. The similarities to one of the worst periods in world history is compelling.

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

[Special Message to the Congress on the Internal Security of the United States, August 8, 1950]” ― Harry S. Truman

As the Nazis worked to consolidate their power and build a cohesive “national community,” suppression of dissent played a key role. In 1933, the Nazis issued a decree that required Germans to turn in anyone who spoke against the party, its leaders, or the government. 

That decree, “For the Defense against Malicious Attacks against the Government,” stated: 

1. Whoever purposely makes or circulates a statement of a factual nature which is untrue or grossly exaggerated or which may seriously harm the welfare of the Reich or of a state, or the reputation of the National government or of a state government or of parties or organizations supporting these governments, is to be punished, provided that no more severe punishment is decreed in other regulations, with imprisonment of up to two years and, if he makes or spreads the statement publicly, with imprisonment of not less than three months.

2. If serious damage to the Reich or a state has resulted from this deed, penal servitude may be imposed.

3. Whoever commits an act through negligence will be punished with imprisonment of up to three months, or by a fine. 

In December 1934, the government replaced the decree with the “Law against Malicious Attacks on State and Party,” adding a clause that criminalized “malicious, rabble-rousing remarks or those indicating a base mentality” against the Nazi Party or high-ranking government or party officials. 

While the Nazis were focusing on putting Germans back to work in the midst of the Great Depression, they also unleashed attacks on their political opposition as soon as Hitler became chancellor. On the evening of February 27, 1933, alarms suddenly rang out in the Reichstag as fire destroyed the building’s main chamber. 

Within 20 minutes, Hitler was on the scene to declare: “This is a God-given signal! If this fire, as I believe, turns out to be the handiwork of Communists, then there is nothing that shall stop us now from crushing out this murderous pest with an iron fist.” Marinus van der Lubbe was the man the Nazis captured that night. He confessed to setting the building ablaze but repeatedly insisted that he had acted alone. Adolf Hitler paid no attention to the confession. He saw a chance to get rid of what he considered the Nazis’ most immediate rival—the Communists—so he ordered the arrest of anyone with ties to the Communist Party. 

Within days, the Nazis had thrown 4,000 Communists and their leaders into hastily created prisons and concentration camps. By the end of March, 20,000 Communists had been arrested, and by the end of that summer more than 100,000 Communists, Social Democrats, union officials, and other “radicals” were imprisoned. Were any of them responsible for the fire? The question was irrelevant to the Nazis. They had been given an opportunity to get rid of their enemies, and they took it.

The day after the fire, February 28, 1933, President Hindenburg, at Hitler’s urging, issued two emergency decrees designed to make such arrests legal, even those that had already taken place. Their titles—“For the Defense of Nation and State” and “To Combat Treason against the German Nation and Treasonable Activities”—reveal how Hitler used the fire to further his own goals. The two decrees suspended, until further notice, every part of the constitution that protected personal freedoms. The Nazis claimed that the decrees were necessary to protect the nation from the “Communist menace.”

Still under Nazi control, the Reichstag passed a new law on March 21, 1933, that made it a crime to speak out against the new government or criticize its leaders. Known as the Malicious Practices Act, the law made even the smallest expression of dissent a crime. Those who were accused of “gossiping” or “making fun” of government officials could be arrested and sent to prison or a concentration camp.

Then, on March 24, 1933, the Reichstag passed what became known as the Enabling Act by a vote of 141 to 94. It “enabled” the chancellor of Germany to punish anyone he considered an “enemy of the state.” The act allowed “laws passed by the government” to override the constitution. Only the 94 Social Democrats voted against the law. Most of the other deputies who opposed it were in hiding, in prison, or in exile.

Then, in June, Hitler outlawed the Social Democratic Party. The German Nationalist Party, which was part of Hitler’s coalition government, dissolved after its deputies were told to resign or become the next target. By the end of the month, German concentration camps held 27,000 people.

By mid-July, the Nazi Party was the only political party allowed in the country. Other organizations were also brought into line. As historian William Sheridan Allen has put it, “Whenever two or three were gathered, the Führer would also be present.”

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