On 27 February 1933, pedestrians near the Reichstag heard the sound of breaking glass and witnessed flames erupting from the German parliament building. It took fire fighters several hours to extinguish the fire, which ultimately destroyed the debating chamber and the Reichstag’s gilded cupola, causing over $1 million in damage. Police arrested an unemployed Dutch construction worker (and alleged communist), Marinus van der Lubbe, who was said to be acting suspiciously near the scene.
The Nazi leadership and its coalition partners blamed the fire on communists plotting a violent uprising against the state. Claiming that emergency legislation was needed to prevent such activity, the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler said: “This is a God-given signal. If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, then we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist.” President Paul von Hindenburg immediately expelled Communist and Socialist deputies from the parliament and announced an emergency decree, suspending or abolishing a whole raft of normal civil rights and constitutional protections. Commonly referred to as the Reichstag Fire Decree, the new legislation permitted the regime to arrest and incarcerate political opponents without specific charge. Empowered to dissolve political organisations and to confiscate private property, the government now had almost complete autonomy. In the election of 5 March 1933, the Nazis increased their share of the vote from 33 per cent to 44 per cent. The decree paved the way for the establishment of a one-party Nazi state and it remained in effect until Germany’s Second World War defeat in May 1945.
Over the years, it has become more and more apparent that, in fact, the building was set on fire deliberately, on Hitler’s orders, by a member of the Prussian Interior Ministry, precisely as a pretext for the heavy-handed political repression that allowed the Nazis to consolidate their power.
In the summer of 1933, the Brown Book on the Reichstag Fire and Hitler’s Terror was published in Switzerland under the editorship of Willi Münzenberg. The book argued that van der Lubbe was a pawn of the Nazis and that Hitler’s party members were the real culprits. It became a bestseller, translated into 24 languages and sold around Europe and the USA.
In April 1946, during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, German diplomat and intelligence officer, Hans Gisevius, gave the following testimony: “It was Goebbels who first came up with the idea of setting fire to the Reichstag. Goebbels discussed this with the leader of the Berlin SA brigade, Karl Ernst, and made detailed suggestions on how to go about carrying out the arson. A certain tincture known to every pyrotechnician was selected. You spray it onto an object and then it ignites after a certain time, after hours or minutes. In order to get into the Reichstag building, they needed the passageway that leads from the palace of the Reichstag President to the Reichstag. A unit of ten reliable SA men was put together, and now Göring was informed of all the details of the plan, so that he coincidentally was not out holding an election speech on the night of the fire, but was still at his desk in the Ministry of the Interior at such a late hour… The intention right from the start was to put the blame for this crime on the Communists, and those ten SA men who were to carry out the crime were instructed accordingly.”
So did van der Lubbe act alone? Or was he in cahoots with a group of German Communists? Or were the Nazis themselves responsible? We will probably never know now. The German government exonerated van der Lubbe in 2008, 75 years after he was executed. The controversy has raged through decades, but one thing is certainly clear – it played a critical role in the Nazi’s (and Hitler’s) rise to power.
And, whatever the truth behind the mystery, The “Reichstag Fire” should continue to serve as a cautionary tale.