German Parliament Marks Nazis' 1933 Destruction of Democracy

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Horst Koehler attended a solemn hour-long session in Berlin's restored Reichstag building.

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Germany's parliament on Thursday remembered the Nazis' swift destruction of democracy after Adolf Hitler took power 75 years ago, and paid tribute to those lawmakers who held out against the Nazis' drive to extinguish political opposition.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Horst Koehler attended a solemn hour-long session in Berlin's restored Reichstag building, whose torching in early 1933 was one of the events that allowed Hitler to consolidate his grip on power.

"We bow today before all the victims of the National Socialist dictatorship," Parliament President Norbert Lammert said in a speech to lawmakers.

Hitler convinced ailing President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint him chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933.

"By the time the Nazis staged book burnings on May 10, the new regime had in a few weeks, after a legal change of government, worked its way through almost everything that would set the tone for the next 12 years: breaking the law, breaking the constitution, breaking with civilization," Lammert said.

A month after Hitler took power, he used the torching of the Reichstag - blamed on Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe - to strengthen his grip on power, suspending civil liberties and cracking down on opposition parties in paving the way for the police state.

On March 23, parliament approved the Enabling Act, enabling Hitler's Cabinet to issue decrees without the need for approval by lawmakers or the president and effectively giving him dictatorial powers.

Lawmakers heard Thursday what Lammert called the last truly free words in the German Reichstag - extracts of a speech in which Social Democratic parliamentary leader Otto Wels opposed the act, declaring that "they can take away our freedom and life - not our honor."

The Enabling Act won the approval of 444 lawmakers; with communist lawmakers and Social Democrats already excluded, only the remaining 94 from Wels' party voted against.

"They refused to give the violent overthrow (of democracy) the badge of legality," Lammert said. "With that, they - most of them then as now unknown to a wide public - became silent heroes of democracy and parliamentarism."

Hans-Jochen Vogel, a former justice minister and Social Democratic leader, pointed to the lessons for the future, at a time when Germany has worried about the success of fringe far-right parties in entering some of its state parliaments over recent years.

"Those who look away and just shrug their shoulders weaken democracy; those who speak up strengthen it," Vogel, 82, told lawmakers to applause.

"Never again: that should be the decisive motto for today," Vogel said. "I say that as someone who himself experienced what it means to grow up under a regime that subordinated everyone and everything to its orders and knew no responsibility before God and human beings."

"We must not delude ourselves: back then, more and more Germans cheered him (Hitler), saw him as a savior," Vogel said.

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