The Reichstag Fire

The Reichstag fire was an arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin on 27 February 1933. The event is seen as pivotal in the establishment of Nazi Germany.

At 21:25hrs, a Berlin fire station received an alarm call that the Reichstag building, the assembly location of the German Parliament, was ablaze. The fire started in the Session Chamber, and, by the time the police and firefighters had arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies was engulfed by flames.

Inside the building, a thorough search conducted by the police resulted in the finding of Marinus van der Lubbe. Van der Lubbe was a Dutch insurrectionist, council communist, and unemployed bricklayer who had recently arrived in Germany, ostensibly to carry out his political activities. The fire was used as evidence by the Nazis that the Communists were beginning a plot against the German government. Van der Lubbe and four Communist leaders were subsequently arrested. Adolf Hitler, who had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany four weeks before, on 30 January, urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to counter the “ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of Germany”. With civil liberties suspended, the government instituted mass arrests of Communists, including all of the Communist parliamentary delegates. With them gone and their seats empty, the Nazis went from being a plurality party to the majority; subsequent elections confirmed this position and thus allowed Hitler to consolidate his power.

Meanwhile, investigation of the Reichstag fire continued, with the Nazis eager to uncover Comintern complicity. In early March, 1933 three men were arrested who were to play pivotal roles during the Leipzig Trial, known also as the “Reichstag Fire Trial”: Bulgarians Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev and Blagoi Popov. Dimitrov would be executed shortly after the trial on Hitler’s orders.

Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor and head of the coalition government on 31 January 1933. As Chancellor, Hitler asked German President Paul von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call for a new parliamentary election. The date set for the elections was 5 March 1933. Hitler’s aim was first to acquire a National Socialist majority to secure his position and eliminate the communist opposition. If prompted or desired, the President could remove the Chancellor. Hitler hoped to abolish democracy in a more or less legal fashion by passing the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was a special law which gave the Chancellor the power to pass laws by decree without the involvement of the Reichstag. These special powers would remain in effect for four years, after which time they were eligible to be renewed. Under the existing Weimar constitution, under Article 48, the President could rule by decree in times of emergency. The unprecedented element of the Enabling Act was that the Chancellor himself possessed these powers. An Enabling Act was only supposed to be passed in times of extreme emergency, and, in fact, had only been used once before, in 1923-24, when the government used an Enabling Act to rescue Germany from hyperinflation. To pass an Enabling Act, a party required a vote by a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. In January 1933, the Nazis had only 32% of the seats and thus were in no position to pass an Enabling Act.

During the election campaign, the Nazis alleged that Germany was on the verge of a Communist revolution and that the only way to stop the Communists was to pass the Enabling Act. The message of the campaign was simple: increase the number of Nazi seats so that the Enabling Act could be passed. To decrease the number of opposition members of parliament who could vote against the Enabling Act, Hitler had planned to ban the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, which at the time held 17% of the parliament’s seats, after the elections and before the new Reichstag convened. The Reichstag fire allowed Hitler to accelerate the banning of the Communist Party. The Nazis capitalized on the fear that the Reichstag fire was supposed to serve as a signal launching the Communist revolution in Germany and promoted this claim in their campaign.

At 10:00 p.m. on February 27, 1933, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag was on fire. Despite the best efforts of the firemen, the building was gutted by the blaze. By 11:30 p.m., the fire was put out. The firemen and policemen inspected the ruins and found twenty bundles of inflammable material unburned lying about. At the time the fire was reported, Adolf Hitler was having dinner with Joseph Goebbels at Goebbels’ apartment in Berlin. When Goebbels received an urgent phone call informing him of the fire, he regarded it as a “tall tale” at first and, only after the second call, did he report the news to Hitler. Hitler, Goebbels, the Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen and Prince Heinrich Günther von Hohenzollern were taken by car to the Reichstag, where they were met by Hermann Göring. Göring told Hitler, “This is a Communist outrage! One of the Communist culprits has been arrested.” Hitler called the fire a “sign from heaven”, and claimed it was a signal meant to mark the beginning of a Communist Putsch.

The next day, the Preussische Pressedienst reported that “this act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany”. The Vossische Zeitung newspaper warned its readers that “the government is of the opinion that the situation is such that a danger to the state and nation existed and still exists”. The day after the fire Hitler asked for and received from President Hindenburg the Reichstag Fire Decree, signed into law by Hindenburg using Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil liberties in Germany and was used by the Nazis to ban publications not considered “friendly” to the Nazi cause. Despite the fact that Marinus van der Lubbe claimed to have acted alone in the Reichstag fire, Hitler, after having obtained his emergency powers, announced that it was the start of a Communist plot to take over Germany. This sent the Germans into a panic and isolated the Communists further among the civilians; additionally, thousands of Communists were imprisoned in the days following the fire (including leaders of the Communist Party of Germany) on the charge that the Party was preparing to stage a putsch. With Communist electoral participation also suppressed (the Communists had previously polled 17% of the vote), the Nazis were able to increase their share of the vote in the March 5, 1933, Reichstag elections from 33% to 44%. This gave the Nazis and their allies, the German National People’s Party (who won 8% of the vote), a majority of 52% in the Reichstag.

While the Nazis emerged with a majority, they had fallen short of their goal, which was to win 50%–55% of the vote that year. The Nazis thought that this would make it difficult to achieve their next goal, which was to pass the Enabling Act, a measure that required a two-thirds majority. However, there were important factors weighing in the Nazis’ favor. These were: the continued suppression of the Communist Party and the Nazis’ ability to capitalize on national security concerns. Moreover, some deputies of the Social Democratic Party (the only party that would vote against the Enabling Act) were prevented from taking their seats in the Reichstag, due to arrests and intimidation by the Nazi SA. As a result, the Social Democratic Party would be under-represented in the final vote tally. The Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the right to rule by decree, passed easily on March 23, 1933. It garnered the support of the right-wing German National People’s Party, the Catholic Centre Party, and several fragmented middle-class parties. This measure went into force on March 27 and, in effect, made Hitler dictator of Germany.

In July 1933, Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov, and Vassil Tanev were indicted on charges of setting the Reichstag on fire. From September 21 to December 23, 1933, the Leipzig Trial took place and was presided over by judges from the old German Imperial High Court, the Reichsgericht. This was Germany’s highest court. The presiding judge was Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bürger of the Fourth Criminal Court of the Fourth Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court. The accused were charged with arson and with attempting to overthrow the government.

The Leipzig Trial was widely publicized and was broadcast on the radio. It was expected that the court would find the Communists guilty on all counts and approve the repression and terror exercised by the Nazis against all opposition forces in the country. At the end of the trial, however, only Van der Lubbe was convicted, while his fellow defendants were found not guilty. In 1934, Van der Lubbe was beheaded in a German prison yard. In 1967, a court in West Berlin overturned the 1933 verdict, and posthumously changed Van der Lubbe’s sentence to 8 years in prison. In 1980, another court overturned the verdict, but was overruled. In 1981, a West German court posthumously overturned Van der Lubbe’s 1933 conviction and found him not guilty by reason of insanity. This ruling was subsequently overturned, but, in January 2008, he was finally pardoned under a 1998 law for the crime on the grounds that the laws under which Van der Lubbe was convicted were unconstitutional.

The trial began at 8:45 on the morning of September 21, with Van der Lubbe testifying. Van der Lubbe’s testimony was very hard to follow as he spoke of losing his sight in one eye and wandering around Europe as a drifter and that he had been a member of the Dutch Communist Party, which he quit in 1931, but still considered himself a communist. Georgi Dimitrov began his testimony on the third day of the trial. He gave up his right to a court-appointed lawyer and defended himself successfully. When warned by Judge Bürger to behave himself in court, Dimitrov stated: “Herr President, if you were a man as innocent as myself and you have passed seven months in prison, five of them in chains night and day, you would understand it if one perhaps becomes a little strained.” During the course of his defense, Dimitrov claimed that the organizers of the fire were senior members of the Nazi Party and frequently verbally clashed with Göring at the trial. The highpoint of the trial occurred on November 4, 1933, when Göring took the stand and was cross-examined by Dimitrov. The following exchange took place:

Dimitrov: Herr Prime Minister Göring stated on February 28 that, when arrested, the “Dutch Communist Van der Lubbe had on his person his passport and a membership card of the Communist Party”. From whom was this information taken?

Göring: The police search all common criminals, and report the result to me. Dimitrov: The three officials who arrested and examined Van der Lubbe all agreed that no membership card of the Communist Party was found on him. I should like to know where the report that such a card had been found came from. Göring: I was told by an official. Things which were reported to me on the night of the fire…could not be tested or proven. The report was made to me by a responsible official, and was accepted as a fact, and as it could not be tested immediately it was announced as a fact. When I issued the first report to the press on the morning after the fire the interrogation of Van der Lubbe had not been concluded. In any case I do not see that anyone has any right to complain because it seems proved in this trial that Van der Lubbe had no such card on him.

Dimitrov: I would like to ask the Minister of the Interior what steps he took to make sure that Van der Lubbe’s route to Hennigsdorf, his stay and his meetings with other people there were investigated by the police to assist them in tracking down Van der Lubbe’s accomplices?

Göring: As I am not an official myself, but a responsible Minister it was not important that I should trouble myself with such petty, minor matters. It was my task to expose the Party, and the mentality, which was responsible for the crime.

Dimitrov: Is the Reichsminister aware of the fact that those that possess this alleged criminal mentality today control the destiny of a sixth part of the world – the Soviet Union?

Göring: I don’t care what happens in Russia! I know that the Russians pay with bills, and I should prefer to know that their bills are paid! I care about the Communist Party here in Germany and about Communist crooks who come here to set the Reichstag on fire!

Dimitrov: This criminal mentality rules the Soviet Union, the greatest and best country in the world. Is Herr Prime Minister aware of that?

Göring: I shall tell you what the German people already know. They know that you are behaving in a disgraceful manner! They know that you are a Communist crook who came to Germany to set the Reichstag on fire! In my eyes you are nothing, but a scoundrel, a crook who belongs on the gallows!”

In his verdict, Judge Bürger was careful to underline his belief that there had in fact been a Communist conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag, but declared, with the exception of Van der Lubbe, there was insufficient evidence to connect the accused to the fire or the alleged conspiracy. Only Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. The rest were acquitted and were expelled to the Soviet Union, where they received a heroic welcome. The one exception was Torgler, who was taken into “protective custody” by the police until 1935. After being released, he assumed a pseudonym and moved away from Berlin.

Hitler was furious with the outcome of this trial. He decreed that henceforth treason—among many other offenses—would only be tried by a newly established People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof). The People’s Court later became associated with the number of death sentences it handed down, including those following the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler which were presided over by then Judge-President Roland Freisler.

At his trial, Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded by guillotine (the customary form of execution in Saxony at the time, it was by axe in the rest of Germany) on January 10, 1934, three days before his 25th birthday. The Nazis alleged that Van der Lubbe was part of the Communist conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag and seize power, while the Communists alleged that Van der Lubbe was part of the Nazi conspiracy to blame the crime on them. Van der Lubbe, for his part, maintained that he had acted alone to protest the condition of the German working class.

Van der Lubbe most certainly set the Reichstag fire. There has been considerable popular debate over whether he acted alone. Considering the speed with which the fire engulfed the building, Van der Lubbe’s reputation as a mentally disturbed arsonist hungry for fame, and cryptic comments by leading Nazi officials, it was generally believed at the time that the Nazi hierarchy was involved for political gain. Most historians today state that Van der Lubbe acted alone, and the Reichstag fire was merely a stroke of good luck for the Nazis. It is alleged that the idea he was a “half-wit” or “mentally disturbed” was propaganda spread by the Dutch Communist party to distance themselves from an insurrectionist anti-fascist who was once a member of the party and took action where they failed to do so. The historian Hans Mommsen concluded that the Nazi leadership was in a state of panic the night of the Reichstag fire, and they seemed to have regarded the Reichstag fire as a confirmation that a Communist revolution was as imminent as they had said it was.

British reporter Sefton Delmer witnessed the events of that night firsthand, and his account of the fire provides a number of details. Delmer reports Hitler arriving at the Reichstag and appearing genuinely uncertain how it had begun and concerned that a Communist coup was about to be launched. Delmer himself viewed Van der Lubbe as being solely responsible, but that the Nazis sought to make it appear to be a “Communist gang” who set the fire, whereas the Communists sought to make it appear that Van der Lubbe was working for the Nazis, each side constructing a plot-theory in which the other was the villain.

General Franz Halder stated in an affidavit that Hermann Göring had joked about setting the fire:

On the occasion of a lunch on the Führer’s birthday in 1942, the people around the Führer turned the conversation to the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears how Göring broke into the conversation and shouted: ‘The only one who really knows about the Reichstag building is I, for I set fire to it.’ And saying this he slapped his thigh.

Under cross-examination at Nuremberg, Göring was read Halder’s affidavit and denied he had any involvement in the fire, characterizing Halder’s statement as “utter nonsense”. Göring stated:

I had no reason or motive for setting fire to the Reichstag. From the artistic point of view I did not at all regret that the assembly chamber was burned; I hoped to build a better one. But I did regret very much that I was forced to find a new meeting place for the Reichstag and, not being able to find one, I had to give up my Kroll Opera House … for that purpose. The opera seemed to me much more important than the Reichstag.

During the summer of 1933, a counter-trial was organized in London by a group of lawyers, democrats and other anti-Nazi groups under the aegis of German Communist émigrés. The chairman of the counter-trial was Labor barrister D N Pritt KC and the chief organiser was KPD’s propaganda chief Willi Münzenberg. The other “judges” were Maître Piet Vermeylen of Belgium, George Branting of Sweden, Maître Vincent de Moro-Giafferi and Maître Gaston Bergery of France, Betsy Bakker-Nort of the Netherlands, Vald Hvidt of Denmark, and Arthur Garfield Hays of the United States. The counter-trial began on September 21, 1933. It lasted one week and ended with the conclusion that the defendants were innocent and the true initiators of the fire were to be found amid the leading Nazi Party elite. The counter-trial received much media attention, and Sir Stafford Cripps delivered the opening speech. Göring was found guilty at the counter-trial. The counter-trial served as a workshop during which all possible scenarios were tested and all speeches of the defendants were prepared. Most of the “judges”, such as Hays and Moro-Giafferi, complained that the atmosphere at the “Counter-trial” was more like a show-trial, with Münzenberg constantly applying pressure behind the scenes on the “judges” to deliver the “right” verdict without any regard for the truth. One of the “witnesses”, a supposed SA man, appeared in court wearing a mask and claimed that it was the SA that really set the fire; in fact, the “SA man” was really Albert Norden, the editor of the German Communist newspaper Rote Fahne. Another masked witness whom Hays described as “not very reliable” claimed that Van der Lubbe was a drug-addicted homosexual who was the lover of Ernst Röhm and a Nazi dupe. When the lawyer for Ernst Torgler asked the counter-trial organizers to turn over the “evidence” exonerating his client, Münzenberg refused the request because he, in fact, lacked any “evidence” to exonerate or convict anyone of the crime. The counter-trial was an enormously successful publicity stunt for the German Communists. Münzenberg followed this triumph with another by writing under his name the best-selling The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror, an exposé of what Münzenberg alleged to be the Nazi conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag and blame the act on the Communists. The success of The Brown Book was subsequently followed by another best-seller published in 1934, again ghost-written by Katz, The Second Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and the Hitler Terror.

The Brown Book was divided into three parts. The first part, which traced the rise of the Nazis, portrayed the KPD as the only genuine anti-fascist force in Germany, and featured a bitter attack on the SPD. Formed from dissidents within the SPD, the KPD had led the communist uprisings in the early Weimar period – which the SPD had crushed. The Brown Book labeled the SPD “Social Fascists” and accused the leadership of the SPD of secretly working in close collaboration with the Nazis. The second section featured numerous examples of Nazi terror directed against Communists; no mention is made of Communist violence or non-Communist Nazi victims. The impression The Brown Book gives is that Communists are victims of Nazism, and the only victims. In addition, the second section deals with the Reichstag fire, which is described as a Nazi plot to frame the Communists, who are represented as the most dedicated opponents of Nazism. The third section deals with the supposed puppet masters behind the Nazis, who Katz, quoting remarks by Vladimir Lenin about middle-class Jews, described as a cabal of Jewish bankers. But both books are interesting to historians, because they show a rarely admitted far-left attitude towards Jewry, especially in the last chapter of the first Brown Book, where it was claimed that Hitler was merely a front-man for a group of international Jewish bankers and that Nazi anti-Semitism was just a ruse to disguise that it was Jewish bankers who really ruled Nazi Germany.


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