The Reichstag fire (German: Reichstagsbrand, listen (help·info)) was an arson attack on the Reichstag building (home of the German parliament) in Berlin on 27 February 1933, just one month after Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. The Nazis stated that Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch council communist, was found near the building. The Nazis publicly blamed the fire on communist agitators in general, although in a German court in 1933, it was decided that Van Der Lubbe had acted alone, as he claimed to have done. After the fire, the Reichstag Fire Decree was passed. The fire was used as evidence by the Nazi Party that communists were plotting against the German government. The event is seen as pivotal in the establishment of Nazi Germany.
Firefighters struggle to extinguish the fire.
|Date||27 February 1933|
|Location||Reichstag building, Berlin, Germany|
|Participants||Marinus van der Lubbe|
The fire started in the Reichstag building, the assembly location of the German Parliament. A Berlin fire station received an alarm call that the building was on fire shortly after 21:00.:26–28 By the time the police and firefighters arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies was engulfed in flames. The police conducted a thorough search inside the building and found van der Lubbe. He was arrested, as were four communist leaders soon after. Hitler urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to suspend civil liberties and pursue a "ruthless confrontation" with the Communist Party of Germany. After passing the decree, the government instituted mass arrests of communists, including all of the Communist Party parliamentary delegates. With their bitter rival communists gone and their seats empty, the Nazi Party went from being a plurality party to the majority, thus enabling Hitler to consolidate his power.
In February 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 Blagoy Popov. The Bulgarians were known to the Prussian police as senior Comintern operatives, but the police had no idea how senior they were: Dimitrov was head of all Comintern operations in Western Europe. The responsibility for the Reichstag fire remains an ongoing topic of debate and research. Historians disagree as to whether van der Lubbe acted alone, as he said, to protest the condition of the German working class. The Nazis accused the Comintern of the act. Some historians endorse the theory, initially proposed by the Communist Party, that the arson was planned and ordered by the Nazis as a false flag operation. The building remained in its fire-damaged state until it was partially repaired from 1961 to 1964, then completely restored from 1995 to 1999.
Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor and head of the coalition government on 30 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 to remove 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 that 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 Weimar Constitution, the President could rule by decree in times of emergency using Article 48. The unprecedented element of the Enabling Act was that the Chancellor possessed the powers. An Enabling Act was only supposed to be passed in times of extreme emergency and had only been used once, in 1923–24 when the government used an Enabling Act to end hyperinflation (see hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic). 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.
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 planned to ban the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (the Communist Party of Germany or KPD), which at the time held 17% of the seats, after the elections and before the new Reichstag convened.
Shortly after 21:00 on 27 February 1933, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag was on fire. Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, most of the building was gutted by the blaze. By 23:30, the fire was put out. The firefighters and police inspected the ruins and found twenty bundles of flammable material (firelighters) 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 hung up. Only after the second call did he report the news to Hitler. Both left Goebbels' apartment and arrived by car at the Reichstag, just as the fire was being put out. They were met at the site by Hermann Göring who told Hitler, "This is Communist outrage! One of the Communist culprits has been arrested." Hitler called the fire a "sign from God" and claimed it was a Fanal (signal) meant to mark the beginning of a Communist Putsch (revolt). The next day, the Preussische Pressedienst (Prussian Press Service) 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, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone. These rights were not reinstated during Nazi reign. The decree 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. Nazi newspapers blared this "news". 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. Speaking to Rudolph Diels about Communists during the Reichstag fire, Hitler said "These sub-humans do not understand how the people stand at our side. In their mouse-holes, out of which they now want to come, of course they hear nothing of the cheering of the masses."  With Communist electoral participation also suppressed (the Communists previously polled 17% of the vote), the Nazis were able to increase their share of the vote in the 5 March 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 fell 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 23 March 1933. It garnered the support of the right-wing German National People's Party, the Centre Party, and several fragmented middle-class parties. This measure went into force on 27 March and, in effect, made Hitler dictator of Germany.
The Kroll Opera House, sitting across the Königsplatz from the burned-out Reichstag building, functioned as the Reichstag's venue for the remaining twelve years of the Third Reich's existence.
Reichstag fire trial
In July 1933, Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov, and Vasil Tanev were indicted on charges of setting the Reichstag on fire. From 21 September to 23 December 1933, the Leipzig Trial took place and was presided over by judges from the German Supreme 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. However, in January 2008, he was pardoned under a 1998 law for the crime on the grounds that anyone convicted under Nazi Germany is officially not guilty. The law allows pardons for people convicted of crimes under the Nazis, based on the idea that the laws of Nazi Germany "went against the basic ideas of justice".
The trial began at 8:45 on the morning of 21 September, 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 had 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 defence, 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 4 November 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.
Execution of Van der Lubbe
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 10 January 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 acted alone to protest the condition of the German working class.
Dispute about Van der Lubbe's role in the Reichstag fire
According to Ian Kershaw, in Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris, written in 1998, the consensus of nearly all historians at the time of writing was that Van der Lubbe did set the Reichstag on fire, and that it was generally believed that he acted alone and that the Reichstag fire was merely a stroke of good luck for the Nazis. Although Van der Lubbe was certainly an arsonist and clearly played a role, there has been considerable popular and scientific debate over whether he acted alone; the case is still discussed.
It is alleged that the idea Van der Lubbe 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. John Gunther, who covered the trial, described him as "an obvious victim of manic-depressive psychosis", and said that the Nazis would not have chosen "an agent so inept and witless". Citing a letter allegedly written by Karl Ernst before his death during the Night of Long Knives, he believed that Nazis who heard Van der Lubbe boast of planning to attack the Reichstag started a second simultaneous fire they blamed on him. Hans Mommsen concluded that the Nazi leadership was in a state of panic on the night of the Reichstag fire and they seemed to regard the fire as confirmation that a Communist revolution was as imminent as they said it was.
British reporter Sefton Delmer witnessed the events of that night and his account of the fire provides a number of details. Delmer reports Hitler arriving at the Reichstag and appearing uncertain how it began and concerned that a Communist coup was about to be launched. Delmer 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.
In 1960, Fritz Tobias, a West German SPD public servant and part-time historian, published a series of articles in Der Spiegel, later turned into a book, in which he argued that Vаn der Lubbe acted alone. Tobias was widely attacked for his articles, which showed that Van der Lubbe was a pyromaniac, with a long history of burning down buildings or attempting to burn down buildings. Tobias established that Van der Lubbe attempted to burn down several buildings in the days prior to 27 February. In March 1973, the Swiss historian Walter Hofer organized a conference intended to rebut the claims made by Tobias. At the conference, Hofer claimed to have found evidence that some of the detectives who investigated the fire had been Nazis. Mommsen commented on Hofer's claims by stating, "Professor Hofer's rather helpless statement that the accomplices of Van der Lubbe 'could only have been Nazis' is tacit admission that the committee did not actually obtain any positive evidence in regard to the alleged accomplices' identity." Mommsen also had a counter-study supporting Hofer, which was suppressed for political reasons, an act that he admits was a serious breach of ethics.
In 1946, Hans Gisevius a member of anti-Hitler resistance within the German government and former member of the Gestapo, Abwehr, and foreign ministry, indicated his supposition that the Nazis were the arsonists. Gisevius posits that Karl Ernst by order of possibly Goebbels, collected a commando of SA men headed by Hans Georg "Heini" Gewehr, who set the fire. Among them was a criminal named Rall, who later made a (suppressed) confession before he was murdered by the Gestapo. Almost all participants were murdered in the Night of the Long Knives; Gewehr survived this purge but was later reported, inaccurately, to have died in the war. Gewehr actually lived until 1976 and was involved in much of the post-war controversy about the origins of the fire.
New work by Bahar and Kugel, as of 2001, has revived the theory that the Nazis were behind the fire. It uses Gestapo archives held in Moscow and available to researchers only since 1990. They argue that the fire was almost certainly started by the Nazis, based on the wealth of circumstantial evidence provided by the archival material. They say that a commando group of at least three and at most ten SA men, led by Hans Georg Gewehr, set the fire using self-lighting incendiaries, and that Van der Lubbe was brought to the scene later. Der Spiegel published a 10-page response to the book, arguing that the thesis that Van der Lubbe acted alone remains the most likely explanation. Benjamin Carter Hett's 2014 study rejects the possibility of a single perpetrator, van der Lubbe, as he had neither time nor appropriate resources for a successful arson attack.
On the occasion of a lunch on the Führer's birthday in 1943, 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 the Nuremberg trial in 1945/6, 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.:433
"Counter-trial" organised by the German Communist Party
During the summer of 1933, a mock counter-trial was organised in London by a group of lawyers, democrats and other anti-Nazis under the aegis of German Communist émigrés. The chairman of the mock trial was Labour barrister (and Stalin apologist) D N Pritt KC and the chief organiser was the KPD propaganda chief Willi Münzenberg. The other "judges" were Meester 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.:120
The mock trial began on 21 September 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 mock counter-trial. The mock 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 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 mock trial organisers to turn over the "evidence" exonerating his client, Münzenberg refused the request because he lacked any "evidence" to exonerate or convict anyone of the crime.:122–126 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. (As with all of Münzenberg's books, the real author was one of his aides; in this case, a Czechoslovak Communist named Otto Katz.) The success of The Brown Book was 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 (or "German Fascists" as Katz called them, in conformity with Comintern practice, which forbade the use of the term Nazi), 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 led the communist uprisings in the early Weimar period—which the SPD crushed. The Brown Book labelled the SPD "Social Fascists" and accused the leadership of the SPD of secretly working with the Nazis. 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.
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The term "Reichstag fire" is used by some writers to denote a calamitous event staged by a political movement, orchestrated in a manner that casts blame on their opponents, thus causing the opponents to be viewed with suspicion by the general public. This is sometimes known as a false flag attack when the event itself is caused by proponents of a political movement to falsely accuse their opponents. In modern histories the destruction of the palace of Diocletian at Nicomedia has been described as a "fourth-century Reichstag fire" used to justify an extensive persecution of Christians. According to Lactantius, "That [Galerius] might urge [Diocletian] to excess of cruelty in persecution, he employed private emissaries to set the palace on fire; and some part of it having been burnt, the blame was laid on the Christians as public enemies; and the very appellation of Christian grew odious on account of that fire." Tacitus' account of the burning of Rome involved similar allegations.
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There is enough evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.
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- Snyder, Louis (1976). Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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- Review of Bahar and Kugel book
- Van der Lubbe exonerated by German courts
- German court overturns Lubbe decision
- Documentary about Reichstag fire and Marinus van der Lubbe
- Newsreel footage from UK about the fire
- The Conspiracists at London Review of Books
- Review of Hett book
- The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag A HathiTrust full text of the US edition held by the University of Michigan: Alfred A Knopf Inc, NY, 1933.