On the evening of February 27, 1933 — six days before the parliamentary election — fire broke out in the Reichstag chambers. While the exact circumstances of the fire remain unclear to this day, what is clear is that Hitler and his supporters quickly capitalized on the fire as a means by which to speed their consolidation of power. Seizing on the burning of the Reichstag building as the opening salvo in a communist uprising, the Nazis were able to throw millions of Germans into a convulsion of fear at the threat of Communist terror. The official account stated:
The burning of the Reichstag was intended to be the signal for a bloody uprising and civil war. Large-scale pillaging in Berlin was planned…. It has been determined that … throughout Germany acts of terrorism were to begin against prominent individuals, against private property, against the lives and safety of the peaceful population, and general civil war was to be unleashed….
The decree was improvised on the day after the fire (February 28) after discussions in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, which was led by Hermann Göring, and was then brought before the Reich cabinet. In the ensuing discussions, Hitler stated that the fire made it now a matter of “ruthless confrontation of the KPD” and shortly thereafter, President von Hindenburg, 84 years old and lapsing in and out of senility, signed the decree into law.
The decree, officially the Verordnung des Reichspräsidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat (Order of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State), invoked the authority of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution which allowed the Reichspräsident to take any appropriate measure to remedy dangers to public safety.
The decree consisted of six articles. Article 1 suspended most of the civil liberties set forth in the Weimar Constitution — freedom of the person, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone, not to mention the protection of property and the home. Articles 2 and 3 allowed the Reich government to assume powers normally reserved to the federal states (Länder). Articles 4 and 5 established draconian penalties for certain offenses, including the death penalty for arson to public buildings. Article 6 simply stated that the decree took effect on the day of its proclamation.