Reichstag fire

Reichstag fire

Infobox Historical Event
Event_Name = Reichstag Fire

Image_Caption = The window through which Marinus van der Lubbe is supposed to have entered the building.
Participants = Marinus van der Lubbe Adolf Hitler
Location = Reichstag building, Berlin
Date = 27 February, 1933
Status = Van der Lubbe executed
On 27 February 1933, the Reichstag building was subject to an arson attack and, as a result, seen as the pivotal event in the establishment of Nazi Germany. At 21:25hrs (UTC +1), 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, [Tobias, Fritz, "The Reichstag Fire". New York: Putnam, 1964, pages 26-28.] 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 a shirtless 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 utilized 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 was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany four weeks before on 30 January, urged President Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree in order to counter the 'ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of Germany'.

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 "Reichstag Fire Trial," namely three Bulgarians: Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev and Blagoi 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.

Historians disagree as to whether van der Lubbe acted alone or if the Nazis were involved. The responsibility for the Reichstag Fire remains an ongoing topic of debate and research.


Hitler had been 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 March1933. Hitler's aim was first to acquire a National Socialist majority in order 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 (see inflation 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 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. In order 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" (the Communist Party of Germany or "KPD"), 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.

The Fire

At 22:00hrs (UTC +1) on 27 February 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 23:30 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 a phone call informing him of the fire, he regarded it as a joke 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 the fire was a "Fanal" (signal) meant to mark the beginning of a Communist "Putsch" (coup). 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". [Snyder, Louis, "Encyclopedia of the Third Reich". New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976, pp. 286-287]

Political consequences of the Fire

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, as well as the thousands of Communists that 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. 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.

The Reichstag Fire Trial

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. [Snyder, Louis, "Encyclopedia of the Third Reich". New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976, p. 288] 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. [cite web|url=,,2239610,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=networkfront|title=75 years on, executed Reichstag arsonist finally wins pardon|publisher=The Guardian|date=2008-01-12|accessdate=2008-05-01]

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, 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 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 November 4, 1933 when Göring took the stand, and was cross-examined by Dimitrov [Snyder, Louis, "Encyclopedia of the Third Reich". New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976, pp. 288-289] . 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!" [Snyder, Louis "Encyclopedia of the Third Reich", New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976, p. 289] .

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 (with the exception of Torgler, who was taken into “protective custody" by the Gestapo after the trial), were expelled to the Soviet Union, where they received a hero's welcome. 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. It was presided over by Judge-President Roland Freisler.

Van der Lubbe's subsequent execution

At his trial, Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded (the customary form of execution in Germany at the time) 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.

Dispute about Van der Lubbe's role in the "Reichstag" Fire

. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, p. 144] .

British reporter Sefton Delmer witnessed the events of that night firsthand, and his account of the fire provides a number of details [ [ Sefton Delmer's account of the Reichstag fire] ] . Delmer viewed Van der Lubbe as solely responsible, 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, and that they had plotted the whole thing.

In 1960, the West German Social Democratic journalist Fritz Tobias published a series of articles in "Der Spiegel", later turned into a book, which argued that Van Der Lubbe had acted alone. At the time, 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. In particular, Tobias established that Van der Lubbe had attempted to burn down a number of buildings in the days prior to February 27. 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 had investigated the fire may have 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" [Snyder, Louis "Encyclopedia of the Third Reich", New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976, pp. 287-288] .

However, new work by two German authors, Bahar and Kugel has revived the theory that the Nazis were behind the fire. It uses Gestapo archives held in Moscow, and only available to researchers 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. [Bahar, Alexander and Kugel, Wilfried, Der Reichstagbrand, edition q (2001) German language only.] "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. [ [ Tony Paterson, "Historians find 'proof' that Nazis burnt Reichstag", "Daily Telegraph", 19 July, 2001] ]

Göring's commentary

William L. Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" details how at Nuremberg, General Franz Halder stated in an affidavit that Hermann Goering 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 [Shirer, William, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". New York: Touchstone, 1959, p. 193.]
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. [ [ Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 9] , March 18, 1946.]

'Counter-trial' organized by the German Communist Party

of the United States. [Tobias, Fritz, "The Reichstag Fire". New York: Putnam, 1964, p. 120.]

The Counter-trial began on September 21, 1933. It lasted one week and ended with the conclusion 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 'Stormtrooper' 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' organisers 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. [Tobias, Fritz, "The Reichstag Fire". New York: Putnam, 1964, pp. 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. (In fact, as with all of Münzenberg's books, the real author was one of his aides, in this case a Czechoslovak Communist named Otto Katz. [Costello, John, "Mask of Treachery". London: William Collins & Sons Ltd, 1988, p. 296] ). 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 (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 savage attack on the S.P.D., who "The Brown Book" labeled 'Social Fascists' and accused the leadership of the S.P.D 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 non-Communist Nazi victims, and likewise, the persecution of the Jews is totally ignored. The impression "The Brown Book" gives is that Communists and Communists alone are victims of Nazism. 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 anti-Semitic remarks by Vladimir Lenin about middle-class Jews, described as a cabal of Jewish bankers. Both books are today widely seen as totally worthless by historians, with particular criticism focusing on 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 antisemitism was just a ruse to disguise that it was Jewish bankers who really ruled Nazi Germany.



*Kershaw, Ian "Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris", London, 1998.
*Mommsen, Hans "The Reichstag Fire and Its Political Consequences" pages 129-222 from "Republic to Reich The Making of the Nazi Revolution" edited by Hajo Holborn, New York: Pantheon Books, 1972: originally published as "Der Reichstagsbrand und seine politischen Folgen" pages 351-413 from "Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte", Volume 12, 1964.
*Synder, Louis "Encyclopedia of the Third Reich", New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
*Tobias, Fritz "The Reichstag Fire", translated From German by Arnold J. Pomerans with an introduction by A.J.P. Taylor, New York, Putnam 1964, 1963.
*Bahar, Alexander and Kugel, Wilfried, "Der Reichstagbrand", edition q (2001) German language only.

External links

* [ New book by Bahar and Kugel based on Gestapo archives from Moscow]
* [ Van der Lubbe exonerated by German courts]
* [,2144,3052896,00.html German court overturns Lubbe decision]
* [ Documentary about Reichstag fire and Marinus van der Lubbe]

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