In 1960, Fritz Tobias, published a series of articles in Der Spiegel, later turned into a book, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963), in which he argued that Marinus van der Lubbe acted alone. (2) After making an extensive study of The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag he came to the conclusion that it was based on forged documents. Arthur Koestler, who had been part of the team working on the book, admitted that it had been based on several forged documents, including the "Obeffohren Memorandum". (3)
Another important document, the signed confession by Karl Ernst, was also shown to be a forgery. Erich Wollenberg, a KPD member, who worked with Willi Münzenberg on the book, admitted that the "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." (4)
Two of the men, Ernst Hanfstaengel, and Richard Fiedler, mentioned by Ernst as knowing about the Nazi conspiracy to set fire to the Reichstag, both survived the war. They both told Tobias that the "Ernst confession was a complete fabrication". (5) Tobias was also able to show that Edmund Heines, who according to the document, helped Ernst to set the building on fire, was in fact that night at an election meeting in far-away Gleiwitz. (6)
Fritz Tobias argued that the actions taken by the Nazi government after the Reichstag Fire shows that they were not responsible: "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". (7)
When Alan Bullock published his revised edition of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) he agreed that he might have been wrong to claim that the Reichstag Fire was a Nazi conspiracy: "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." (8)
Fritz Tobias died on 1st January, 2011.
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.
On the evening of February 27th, 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin was set on fire and went up in flames. This was a stroke of good fortune for the Nazis. Although Hitler had been appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg on January 30th, the Nazis did not have a parliamentary majority, even with their Nationalist allies.
The Reichstag was dissolved; and the Nazis began a raging electoral campaign. They were still doubtful of success. They badly needed a ‘Red’ scare. On February 24th the police raided Communist headquarters. It was announced that they had discovered plans for a Communist revolution. Evidently they did not discover much: the alleged subversive documents were never published.
Then came the burning of the Reichstag. Here was the Red scare ready-made. On the following day, Hindenburg promulgated an emergency decree "for the protection of the People and the State." The constitutional guarantees of individual liberty were suspended. The Nazis were able to establish a legal reign of terror.
Thanks largely to this, they and the Nationalists won a bare majority at the general election on March 5th; and, thereafter, first the Communist party, and then all parties other than the National Socialist, were made illegal. The burning of the Reichstag was the vital preliminary to Hitler’s dictatorship.
Who then committed the decisive act? Who actually started the Reichstag fire? The Nazis said it was the work of Communists. They tried to establish this verdict at the trial of the supposed incendiaries before the High Court at Leipzig. They failed. Hardly anyone now believes that the Communists had a hand in the Reichstag fire.
If not the Communists, then who? People outside Germany, and many inside it, found a simple answer: the Nazis did it themselves. This version has been generally accepted. It appears in most textbooks. The most reputable historians, such as Alan Bullock, repeat it. I myself accepted it unquestioningly, without looking at the evidence.
A retired civil servant, Fritz Tobias – an anti-Nazi – recently looked at the evidence. He published his results in an illustrated German weekly, Der Spiegel, from which I take them. They are surprising. Here is the story.
Shortly before nine o’clock, on the evening of February 27th, a student of theology called Hans Floter, now a lecturer in Bremen, was going home after a day in the library. As he crossed the open space in front of the Reichstag, he heard the sound of breaking glass. He looked up, and saw someone climbing into the Reichstag through a window on the first floor. Otherwise, the place was deserted.
Floter ran to the corner, found a policeman. "Someone is breaking into the Reichstag." The two men ran back. Through the window they saw not only a shadowy figure but flames. It was three minutes past nine. Floter had done his duty. He went home to his supper and out of the story. Another passer-by joined the policeman: a young printer called Thaler, who was incidentally a Social Democrat. He died in 1943.
Thaler shouted out: ‘Shoot, man, shoot.’ The policeman raised his revolver, and fired. The shadowy figure disappeared. The policeman ran back to the nearest police-post, and gave the alarm. The time was recorded as 9.15. Within minutes police poured into the Reichstag. At 9.22, a police officer tried to enter the Debating Chamber. He was driven back by the flames. At 9.27, the police discovered and arrested a half-naked young man. He was a Dutchman called Marinus van der Lubbe.
Meanwhile, the fire brigade had also been alarmed. The first report reached them at 9.13. The first engine reached the Reichstag at 9.18. There were inevitable delays. Only one side-door was kept unlocked after eight o’clock in the evening.
The firemen, who did not know this, went to the wrong door. Then they wasted time putting out small fires in the passages. There was confusion as one alarm crossed another. The full strength of the Berlin fire-brigade – some sixty engines – was mobilized only at 9.42. By then, the whole building was irreparably lost. It still stands, an empty shell.
There was an alarm of a different kind. Just across the road from the Reichstag was the house of its President, the Nazi leader Goering. But Goering had not moved in. The house, or Palace, was unoccupied except for a flat at the top which Goering had lent to Putzi Hanftstaengel, an upper-class hanger-on of the Nazis. Hanftstaengel looked out of his window and saw the Reichstag burning. He knew that Hitler and Goebbels were at a party near by. He telephoned Goebbels.
Goebbels thought this was one of Hanftstaengel’s practical jokes and put down the phone. Hanftstaengel rang again. Goebbels checked with the Reichstag and found the report was true. Within a few minutes he and Hitler and a swarm of Nazi attendants were also in the Reichstag.
(1) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 17
(2) Benjamin Carter Hett, Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery (2014) page 267
(3) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 117
(4) Erich Wollenberg, Echo of the Week (12th August, 1949)
(5) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 143
(6) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 110
(7) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 72
(8) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 263