Who Set Fire to the Reichstag? (Classroom Activity)

On 31st January, 1933, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary about the plans to deal with the German Communist Party (KPD): "During discussions with the Führer we drew up the plans of battle against the red terror. For the time being, we decided against any direct counter-measures. The Bolshevik rebellion must first of all flare up; only then shall we hit back."

The following month the Gestapo raided Communist headquarters. Hermann Göring claimed that he had found "barrels of incriminating material concerning plans for a world revolution". However, the alleged subversive documents were never published and it is assumed that in reality the Nazi government had not discovered anything of any importance.

On 27th February, 1933, the Reichstag building caught fire. It was reported at ten o'clock when a Berlin resident telephoned the police and said: "The dome of the Reichstag building is burning in brilliant flames." The Berlin Fire Department arrived minutes later and although the main structure was fireproof, the wood-paneled halls and rooms were already burning.

Hitler gave orders that all leaders of the KPD should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". Orders were given for all KPD members of the Reichstag to be arrested. This included Ernst Torgler, the chairman of the KPD. Göring commented that "the record of Communist crimes was already so long and their offence so atrocious that I was in any case resolved to use all the powers at my disposal in order ruthlessly to wipe out this plague". Hitler claimed that this was clearly an attempted coup and that leading members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) should also be arrested.

Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested in the Reichstag building. He was a 24 year-old vagrant and had just arrived in Berlin from Leiden. Van der Lubbe was interviewed by the Gestapo and he admitted setting fire to the Reichstag but claimed that he had no connections with the KPD or the SDP. However, back home in the Netherlands, he had supported a tiny Dutch political group called the "Rade or International Communists". On his arrival in Germany he talked to many people and was shocked to discover that the "workers will do nothing against a system which grants freedom to one side and metes out oppression to the other". He decided that since "the workers would do nothing, I had to do something by myself".

On 23rd March, 1933, the German Reichstag passed the Enabling Bill. This banned the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party from taking part in future election campaigns. This was followed by Nazi officials being put in charge of all local government in the provinces (7th April), trades unions being abolished, their funds taken and their leaders put in prison (2nd May), and a law passed making the Nazi Party the only legal political party in Germany (14th July).

Primary Sources

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
(Source 1) Marinus van der Lubbe


(Source 2) Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo, wrote about the Reichstag Fire in his memoirs published in 1950.

Shortly after my arrival in the burning Reichstag, the National Socialist elite had arrived. On a balcony jutting out of the chamber, Hitler and his trusty followers were assembled." Göring told him: "This is the beginning of the Communist Revolt, they will start their attack now! Not a moment must be lost. There will be no mercy now. Anyone who stands in our way will be cut down. The German people will not tolerate leniency. Every communist official will be shot where he is found. Everybody in league with the Communists must be arrested. There will also no longer be leniency for social democrats.

(Source 3) Franz von Papen, claims that on the night of the Reichstag Fire he had a conversation with Adolf Hitler.

This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice-Chancellor! If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, that we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist.

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
(Source 4) John Heartfield, Hermann Göring: Executioner of the Third Reich (September, 1933)


(Source 5) Seftan Delmer, a British journalist, claims that on the night of the Reichstag Fire he had a conversation with Adolf Hitler.

Adolf Hitler: "God grant that this is the work of the Communists. You are witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history. This fire is the beginning.... You see this flaming building, If this Communist spirit got hold of Europe for but two months it would be all aflame like this building."

(Source 6) Willi Frischauer, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung (27th February, 1933)

There can scarcely be any doubt that the fire which is now destroying the Reichstag was set by henchmen of the Hitler government. By all appearances, the arsonists used an underground passage connecting the Reichstag to the palace of its president, Hermann Göring.

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
(Source 7) Bernard Partridge, published this cartoon on 8th March, 1933:
Paul von Hindenburg to Adolf Hitler: "The red peril – This is a heaven sent
opportunity my lad. If you can't be a dictator now you never will."

(Source 8) Seftan Delmer, Daily Express (28th February, 1933)

The arson of the German parliament building was allegedly the work of a Communist-sympathizing Dutchman, van der Lubbe. More probably, the fire was started by the Nazis, who used the incident as a pretext to outlaw political opposition and impose dictatorship... The fire broke out at 9.45 tonight in the Assembly Hall of the Reichstag. It had been laid in five different comers and there is no doubt whatever that it was the handiwork of incendiaries.

(Source 9) Victor Klemperer, diary entry (10th March, 1933)

Eight days before the election the clumsy business of the Reichstag fire - cannot imagine that anyone really believes in Communist perpetrators instead of paid Nazi work. Then the wild prohibitions and acts of violence. And on top of that the never-ending propaganda in the street, on the radio etc.

(Source 10) Marinus van der Lubbe, statement (28th February, 1933)

I do nothing for other people, all for myself. No one was for setting the fire." However, he hoped that his act of arson would lead the revolution. "The workers should rebel against the state order. The workers should think that it is a symbol for a common uprising against the state order.

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
(Source 11) David Low, The Trial of a Trial (21st September, 1933).
The cartoon shows Hermann Göring and members of the SA in the dock.

(Source 12) Marinus van der Lubbe, statement to police (3rd March, 1933)

I myself am a Leftist, and was a member of the Communist Party until 1929. I had heard that a Communist demonstration was disbanded by the leaders on the approach of the police. In my opinion something absolutely had to be done in protest against this system. Since the workers would do nothing, I had to do something myself. I considered arson a suitable method. I did not wish to harm private people but something belonging to the system itself. I decided on the Reichstag. As to the question of whether I acted alone, I declare emphatically that this was the case.

(Source 13) Karl Ernst, signed confession (3rd June, 1934)

I, the undersigned, Karl Ernst, S.A. Gruppenführer... declare that, on February 27th, 1933, I and two others set fire to the German Reichstag. We did so in the belief that we should be serving the Führer and our movement. We hoped that we might enable the Führer to deliver a shattering blow against Marxism, the worst enemy of the German people. Before this pestilence is completely smashed, Germany cannot recover. I do not regret what I have done, and I should do the same thing all over again.

(Source 14) Ernst Oberfohren, Oberfohren Memorandum (September, 1933)

The agents of Herr Göring, led by the Silesian S.A. leader, Reichstag-deputy Heines, entering the Reichstag through the heating-pipe passage leading from the palace of the President of the Reichstag, Göring. Every S.A. and S.S. leader was carefully selected and had a special station assigned to him. As soon as the outposts in the Reichstag signalled that the Communist deputies Torgler and Koenen had left the building, the S.A. troop set to work.

The fire was instantaneously attributed to the Communists by the Government, which at once began to manufacture false evidence, thereby not inculpating but rather exculpating the Communists and deepening the suspicion felt by all objective observers that the real incendiaries were to be found within the Cabinet itself. Before the tribunal of history it is not the Communists, not the wretched van der Lubbe (their alleged instrument, whose public execution Hitler had threatened before his guilt has been proved, before he has even been tried), but the German Government that is arraigned.


(Source 15) Martin Sommerfeldt, who worked for Hermann Göring, letter to Richard Woolf (18th January, 1956)

From the night of the fire to this day, I have been convinced that the Reichstag was set on fire neither by the communists nor Herman Göring, but that the fire was the piece de resistance of Dr. Goebbels's election campaign, and that it was started by an handful of Storm Troopers all of whom were shot afterwards by SS commandoes in the vicinity of Berlin. There was talk of ten men, and of the Gestapo investigating the crime. This was reported to me on the one hand by Ernst, the Chief of the Berlin Stormtroopers, who was filled with poisonous hatred of Goebbels, and also by the police chief Dr. Diels who gave me exact details about the crime and the identification of the 10 victims.

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
(Source 16) Route of Marinus van der Lubbe in the Reichstag on 28th February, 1933.
Information based on his confession he made on 3rd March, 1933.

(Source 17) Hermann Göring provided evidence on the Reichstag Fire at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in 1946.

I had nothing to do with it. I deny this absolutely. I can tell you in all honesty, that the Reichstag fire proved very inconvenient to us. After the fire I had to use the Kroll Opera House as the new Reichstag and the opera seemed to me much more important than the Reichstag. I must repeat that no pretext was needed for taking measures against the Communists. I already had a number of perfectly good reasons in the forms of murders, etc.

(Source 18) Hans Gisevius, testimony at Nuremberg War Crimes Trial (4th April, 1946)

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.


(Source 19) Erich Wollenberg, a German Communist Party (KPD) member, was one of those involved in the production of The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag (1934)

Karl Ernst testament, which was concocted by a group of German Communists in Paris - including Bruno Frei and Konny Norden - after Ernst's murder on June 30th, 1934, and only published after Dimitrov himself edited it in Moscow.

(Source 20) Arthur Koestler, in his book, The God That Failed (1949), admitted that working under Willi Münzenberg, he was involved in forging documents that appeared in The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag (1934)

Willi Münzenberg organized the Reichstag Counter-Trial - the public hearings in Paris and London in 1933, which first called the attention of the world to the monstrous happenings in the Third Reich. Then came the series of Brown Books, a flood of pamphlets which he financed and directed, through his name nowhere appeared.

(Source 21) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963)

Today there seems little doubt that it was precisely by allowing van der Lubbe to stand trial that the Nazis proved their innocence of the Reichstag fire. For had van der Lubbe been associated with them in any way, the Nazis would have shot him the moment he had done their dirty work, blaming his death on an outbreak of 'understandable popular indignation'. Van der Lubbe could then have been branded a Communist without the irritations of a public trial, and foreign critics would not have been able to argue that, since no Communist accomplices were discovered, the real accomplices must be sought on the Government benches.

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
(Source 22) Marinus van der Lubbe and Ernst Torgler in court (September, 1933)

(Source 23) A. J. P. Taylor, History Today (August, 1960)

The most important confession was not anonymous. It claimed to be the work of Karl Ernst, Brown Shirt leader in Berlin. Very conveniently it only turned up when Ernst was dead – killed by Hitler in the great purge of June 30th, 1934. Even more convenient, Karl Ernst went out of his way to improve on earlier versions, where these had been shown to be inaccurate.

For instance, the anonymous Brown Shirt informers had confessed that they were led by Heines, another Berlin Brown Shirt chief. Heines was far away from Berlin, making an election speech in his constituency; and this could be proved from the newspapers. So Ernst kindly named himself as leader. Again, the Brown Shirt men said they came through the tunnel. Evidently they did not know that the tunnel was lined with steel-plates and that anyone going through it in ordinary shoes made a noise like thunder; the night-porter would certainly have heard them. So Ernst added the detail, surprisingly left out of earlier accounts, that they all changed into plimsolls.

There was one thing Karl Ernst got wrong. He agreed with the other confessions that the Brown Shirts entered the Reichstag at 8.40 p.m. This had to be the time if they were to do their work before van der Lubbe was pushed through the window at 9.03.

Unfortunately, Ernst – or the Communist forgers – did not know one little event in the Reichstag routine. At 8.45 p.m. a postman came through the side-door to collect the deputies’ mail. On February 27th, he entered as usual; walked through the deserted building; and left at 8.55 p.m. He saw nothing out of the ordinary – no shadowy figures, no smell of petrol or other inflammable liquid.

The worthy postman, in fact, demonstrates the falsity of all stories about the Reichstag which assume that there was anyone present before van der Lubbe broke in at 9.03. It seems equally unlikely that the Brown Shirts could have got in at 9pm and have escaped, their work finished, before the police began to search the building at 9.22....

Those who have tried to defend the "traditional" version are now inclined to admit that there is no clear or satisfactory explanation of how the Nazis got into the Reichstag. But they still point to the evidence of the experts at the trial that van der Lubbe could not have done it alone. Yet this expert evidence is the shakiest part of the story....

At first sight, it seems astonishing that one man could have set fire to this huge building. As a matter of fact, these gaudy public buildings burn easily. Dusty curtains, wooden panelling, high ceilings, draughts under the door – they were made for fires. In 1834 the Houses of Parliament at Westminster were entirely destroyed by fire, simply from one stove-pipe becoming too hot. Or if this be thought an antiquated story, the Vienna Stock Exchange was burnt out in 1956 as the result of one smouldering cigarette-end in a wastepaper basket. Van der Lubbe had over twenty minutes in which to start fires. This was more than enough.

The conclusion is clear. Van der Lubbe could have set fire to the Reichstag by himself; there is a good deal of evidence that he did so; there is none that he had any assistants. Of course, new evidence may turn up to disturb these conclusions. So far, none has done so.

(Source 24) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962)

Herr Tobias's conclusion rejects both the Nazi and the anti-Nazi account in favour of van der Lubbe's own declaration, from which he never wavered, that he alone was responsible for the fire and that he carried it out as a single-handed act of protest. Herr Tobias may well be right in arguing that this, the simplest explanation of all, is the true one.

(Source 25) World Socialist Website (5th July, 2001)

For the Nazis, who had been in power less than a month, since January 30, 1933, the Reichstag fire was the excuse for a hitherto unparalleled persecution of Communist and Social Democratic workers, intellectuals and party leaders. On February 28, 1933 alone, just one day after the fire, thousands of persons active in, or allied with, the workers movement were arrested. The first to be arrested also included writers Egon Erwin Kisch, Ludwig Renn and Carl von Ossietzky, later murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp.

All left-wing newspapers, including the Social Democratic daily Vorwärts, the Communist Party press and the German Trotskyists’ newspaper Permanente Revolution, were confiscated and banned.

Two decrees put into effect only one day later, the “Decree on the Protection of People and State”, subtitled “against communist acts of violence endangering the state,” and the “Decree Against Treason of the German People and High-Treason Activities,” were used to annul practically overnight the essential basic rights incorporated in the constitution of the Weimar Republic. These so-called “fire decrees” stayed in effect until the end of the Third Reich and formed the pseudo-legal basis for the entire Nazi dictatorship.

In the days immediately following the fire, the Nazis used the opportunity to generally weaken the entire German workers movement and prepare its destruction, a pressing task since early Reichstag elections had been scheduled for March 5, 1933, and a Nazi election victory was by no means certain...

As early as 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. In this book, German emigrés attempted to provide proof that the Nazis had committed the crime in a secret operation run by Nazi leader Hermann Göring. And even before the Reichstag Fire Trial in Leipzig, the “Legal Commission of the International Investigation Committee” came to the conclusion that the Nazis had set the fire themselves. Up to 1949, this was the prevailing opinion of all serious contemporaries outside of Germany...

Responsibility for the Reichstag Fire was a constant source of debate between German historians after the Second World War. In the early 1960’s, the attempt was made to establish the hypothesis of van der Lubbe as the sole culprit - in particular by Rudolf Augstein’s magazine Der Spiegel and the “amateur historian” and intelligence officer Fritz Tobias. To this very day, some prominent German historians base themselves on this hypothesis and still attempt to deny the guilt of the Nazis.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Read the introduction and study sources 2, 3, 5 and 7. Name the group of people that the Nazi government blamed for the Reichstag Fire. What action did the government take against these people?

Question 2: Study sources 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 18 and 25. All these sources suggest that the Reichstag Fire was organized by the Nazis. Name the people suggested as being involved in starting the fire.

Question 3: Some historians, such as Fritz Tobias (source 21), A. J. P. Taylor (source 23) and Alan Bullock (source 24), believe that Marinus van der Lubbe started the fire on his own. What evidence do they provide for this view? It will help you to study sources 10, 12, 16, 17, 19 and 20.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.