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The Reichstag fire, a pivotal event in the establishment of Nazi Germany, began at 9:14 PM on the night of February 27, 1933, when a Berlin fire station received an alarm that the Reichstag building, assembly location of the German Parliament, was ablaze. The fire seemed to have been started in several places, and by the time the police and firemen arrived a huge explosion had set the main Chamber of Deputies in flames. Looking for clues, the police quickly found Marinus van der Lubbe, shirtless, inside the building. Van der Lubbe was a Dutch insurrectionary council communist and unemployed bricklayer who had recently arrived in Germany.
Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring arrived soon after, and, when they were shown van der Lubbe, Göring immediately declared the fire was set by the Communists and had the party leaders arrested. Hitler declared a state of emergency and encouraged aging president Paul von Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending the basic rights provisions of the Weimar constitution.
The Nazi leaders were determined to demonstrate the Reichstag Fire was a deed of the Comintern, and 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 of how senior they were. Dimitrov was in charge of all Comintern operations in Western Europe.
Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor and head of the coalition government on January 30, 1933. His first act was to ask Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag so that he could increase the number of Nazi seats in the government. Hitler's request was granted and elections were set for March 5, 1933. Hitler's aim was to abolish democracy in a more or less legal fashion by activating the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was a special power allowed by the Weimar Constitution to give the Chancellor the power to pass laws by decree, without the involvement of the Reichstag. 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 government itself possessed these powers. The Enabling Act was only supposed to be used in times of extreme emergency, and in fact had only been used once before, in 1923-24 when the government used the Enabling Act to rescue Germany from hyperinflation. To activate the Enabling Act 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 activate the Enabling Act. It had a four-year application and would have to be renewed after this.
During the election campaign, the Nazis had run on a platform of fervent anti-communism, insisting that Germany was on the verge of a Communist revolution, and that the only way to stop the revolution was to pass the Enabling Act. Hitler's platform in the campaign comprised little more than demands that voters increase the Nazi share of seats so that the Enabling Act could be passed. In order to decrease the number of opposition members who could vote against the Enabling Act, Hitler had planned to ban the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands-Communist Party of Germany), 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 and was used to confirm Nazi claims of a pending Communist revolution. The Nazis argued the Reichstag fire was meant to serve as a signal to launch the revolution, and warned the German public about the grisly fate they would suffer under Communist rule
According to the Berlin police, Van der Lubbe claimed to have set the fire as a protest against the rising power of the Nazis. Under torture, he confessed again and was brought to trial along with the leaders of the opposition Communist Party. As a consequence of the Reichstag Fire Decree, the police and the SA, actually a paramilitary organization of Hitler's party, seized all Communist Party buildings in Germany, along with weapons they claimed were to be used in the coup. The KPD was never banned, in case communists switched to the SPD.
With their leaders in jail and denied access to the press, the Communists were badly disorganized. Those Communist (and some Social Democratic) deputies that were elected to the Reichstag were prevented from taking their seats by the SA. The Nazis increased their share of the vote to 44%, which gave the Nazis and their coalition allies, the German National People's Party, a 52% majority in the Reichstag. The March elections were a major success for the Nazis but not to the extent they were hoping for. (The Nazis had hoped to win 50%-55% of the vote.) The Nazis coerced and bribed the remaining parties except for the Social Democrats to give them the two-thirds majority for the Enabling Act, which gave them the right to rule by decree and suspended most civil liberties. Despite considerable pressure, only the Social Democrats voted against the Enabling Act. In the months that followed, all of the non-Nazi parties were either banned or dissolved themselves to avoid arrests and concentration camp imprisonment.
At his trial, Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded 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.
The Leipzig Trial took part from September 21 to December 23, 1933, and was presided over by judges from the old German Imperial Court, called the Reichsgericht. The Leipzig Trial was widely publicized and was broadcast on the radio. It was expected 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. It was clear the first time Georgi Dimitrov spoke that would not happen. Dimitrov had given up his right to a court appointed lawyer and defended himself successfully. He proved his innocence and the innocence of his Communist comrades and was set free. In addition, he presented evidence that the organizers of the fire were senior members of the Nazi Party.
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 Volksgerichtshof (People's Court) which later became infamous for the enormous number of death sentences it handed down while led by Roland Freisler.
Historians generally agree that van der Lubbe was involved in the Reichstag fire. The extent of the damage, however, has led to considerable 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 is generally believed the Nazi hierarchy was involved in order to reap political gain and it obviously did. Others have contended that neither the Nazis nor Communists were behind the fire, and that van der Lubbe acted alone. According to this view, the Reichstag fire was a stroke of good luck for the Nazis. The idea that he was a "half-wit" or "mentally disturbed" was propaganda spread by the communist party to distance themselves from an insurrectionary anti-fascist who was once a member of the party and took action where they failed to. 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 all their propaganda about a Communist revolution being imminent was actually true.
British reporter Sefton Delmer witnessed the events of that night first hand, and his account of the fire provides a number of details. 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.
Another theory appears in the book Himmler's Secret War by Martin Allen (published in Great Britain by Robson Books in the year 2005). According to this book, the Reichstag fire was started by a band of Sicherheitsdienst (SD, the SS security service) agents who secretly entered the Reichstag through an underground tunnel that was connected to Göring's official residence.
- 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 propagandists under the aegis of German Communist Émigrés. The chairman of the "Counter-trial" was the Labour barrister D. N. Pritt K.C., but the chief organizer behind the "counter-trial" was KPD's propaganda chief Willi Münzenberg. The counter-trial lasted one week and ended with the conclusion the defendants were innocent, and the true initiators of the fire are found amid the leading NSDAP elite. 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. The "Counter-trial" was an enormously successful publicity stunt for the German Communists. Münzenberg followed this triumph with another by having written under his name the best-selling The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire, an expose of what Münzenberg alleged to be the Nazi conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag and blame the act on the Communists (In fact, like all of Münzenberg's books, the real author was one of his aides, in this case a Czechoslovak Communist named Otto Katz). Today, The Brown Book is widely seen as worthless by historians.
- ^ Sefton Delmer's account of the Reichstag fire.
- ^ Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 9, March 18, 1946.
- 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 Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Volume 12, 1964.
- Synder, Louis Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
- Tobias, Fritz The Reichstag Fire, translated From the German by Arnold J. Pomerans with an introduction by A.J.P. Taylor, New York, Putnam 1964, 1963.