What is the significance of the Reichstag fire?

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The Reichstag was the German Parliament building in Berlin. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building burned down as a result of arson. Hitler utilized this event to consolidate power and further his own goals. Hitler would also claim that the fire had been started by the communists in order to gain support for his Nazi party, while simultaneously damaging the public view of the communists.

Following the burning of the Reichstag, President Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree which placed emergency limitations on the freedoms of German citizens. This decree allowed for the government to limit rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. This was all done in an attempt to limit criticism of the Nazis under the guise of national security.

Hitler's blaming of the communists, while no evidence has been provided that it was the communists, was also used to his advantage. The Nazis promoted propaganda blaming the communists for the fire, and thus generated greater public fear around the communist party. The Reichstag Fire Decree allowed for the Nazi government to arrest political opponents without charging them with a crime. It also allowed for the federal government, controlled by the Nazis, to overrule state and local governments, while additionally having the power to remove leaders in state and local governments from power.

The main significance of the Reichstag fire is the fact that it was utilized by the Nazis to strengthen their power and control over Germany, while eroding the freedoms and protections German citizens had. The Reichstag Decree was intended to be temporary, but it would lead to more permanent legislation down the road. Due to their use of the Reichstag fire as a weapon of propaganda, many Germans believed the limiting of rights by the Nazi party had prevented a communist takeover. This gave the Nazis more credibility in the eyes of the public and allowed for them to further consolidate power.

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The Reichstag Fire was significant because it gave Adolf Hitler a pretext that allowed him to take more dictatorial powers over Germany.

Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.  At that point, Germany was still a relatively democratic country.  The Nazi Party did not yet have the kind of complete control of the country that it would later have.  Hitler wanted to subvert the democratic system so that he could eventually rule as a dictator.  The Reichstag Fire allowed him to move in this direction.

The person who set the fire in the Reichstag was a Dutch communist.  He was also somewhat mentally handicapped.  The Nazis used the fact that he was a communist to “prove” that there was a communist conspiracy within Germany that aimed to take power in the country.  Using the fear of this conspiracy, Hitler was able (partly because he was able to ban all communist members) to get the Reichstag to declare an emergency.  The enabling act that the Reichstag passed gave Hitler the power to rule by decree. 

Thus, the Reichstag Fire gave Hitler the perfect excuse to take greater power over the German system.  The fire is significant as a major step along the way to total Nazi domination of Germany.

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