What is an Enabling Act?

James Doehring

An enabling act is a law passed by a legislative body to grant authority for some kind of action. Many constitutions declare that the permission of such a body is required for certain types of actions, including executive decrees by national leaders or local governance by citizens. The term “enabling act” has meant different things in different contexts—the two most common uses of the term refer to laws passed in the United States and Germany. In the US, the term generally referred to Congressional acts that granted territories permission to form states. In Germany, it was the name of an act that granted leader Adolf Hitler unchecked authority to pass laws.

Adolph Hitler gained unchecked authority to pass laws under a German "enabling act."
Adolph Hitler gained unchecked authority to pass laws under a German "enabling act."

In the US, the Enabling Act of 1802 allowed a portion of the Northwest Territory to begin the transition to full statehood. The Northwest Territory initially had fewer than 60,000 inhabitants and so was given territory status through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. When the territory had the designated population in 1802, the US Congress—a body that grants the authority for statehood—allowed the area to form a constitution. Following ratification of its constitution, it became the state of Ohio. The legislation was called an enabling act because it enabled residents of the Northwest Territory to organize and apply to join the US on equal footing with other states.

The Enabling Act of 1933 set the stage for the Holocaust.
The Enabling Act of 1933 set the stage for the Holocaust.

Likewise, the Enabling Acts of 1889 and 1910 allowed additional territories to become states. North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington became states in November of 1889 following ratification of their state constitutions. Arizona and New Mexico were accepted in 1910. The Enabling Act of 1802 set the precedent for these laws that came later. By the time Hawaii and Alaska were admitted as states following the Second World War, these acts were no longer given the name “enabling.” In Germany at this time, an enabling act had a very different meaning.

Germany’s parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933 to give leader Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers. It was the next major legal measure that established his dictatorship after the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended many civil liberties and long-held human rights laws. Hitler claimed that he needed full, unchecked power in order to protect the people of Germany and save the society from destruction. Historians consider the Enabling Act of 1933 to be a pivotal moment in history that allowed Hitler to reshape German society, lead the country into world war and orchestrate the Holocaust. The act passed 441 votes to 94—though it was only supposed to last four years, it was voted into law again three times between 1937 and 1944.

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