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." (1)
On 24th February, the Gestapo raided Communist headquarters. Hermann Göring claimed that he had found "barrels of incriminating material concerning plans for a world revolution". (2) 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. (3)
Three days after the KPD raid, 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. (4)
Göring, who had been at work in the nearby Prussian Ministry of the Interior, was quickly on the scene. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels arrived soon after. So also did Rudolf Diels: "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." (5)
Hitler gave orders that all leaders of the German Communist Party (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". (6)
Torgler was interviewed by the Gestapo. He was able to give details of having left the Reichstag building at 8.15 p.m. and arriving at the Aschinger Restaurant at 8.30 p.m. Witnesses confirmed this but his alibi was rejected and he was placed in custody and for the next seven months he was "fettered day and night". (7) Torgler complained: "It was left to the warders' discretion either to tighten our chains until the blood circulation was gravely impeded, and the skin broke, or else to take pity on us and to loosen the chains by one notch." (8)
Hitler told Franz von Papen: "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." Hitler claimed that this was clearly an attempted coup and that leading members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) should also be arrested. (9) Seftan Delmer claimed he heard Hitler say: "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." (10)
Göring informed Hitler, Goebbels and Diels that Marinus van der Lubbe had been arrested in the building. He was a 24 year-old vagrant. He was born in Leiden, on 13th January, 1909. His father was a heavy drinker who left the family when he was seven years old. His mother died five years later. He was then raised by an older sister and was brought up in extreme poverty. After leaving school Lubbe worked as a bricklayer but after an industrial accident in 1925 he spent five months in hospital. He never fully recovered from his injuries and was now unable to work and had to live on a small invalidity pension. (11)
Van der Lubbe was immediately interviewed by the Gestapo. According to Rudolf Diels: "A few of my department were already engaged in interrogating Marinus Van der Lubbe. Naked from the waist upwards, smeared with dirt and sweating, he sat in front of them, breathing heavily. He panted as if he had completed a tremendous task. There was a wild triumphant gleam in the burning eyes of his pale, haggard young face." (12)
Detective-Inspector Walter Zirpins carried out the original investigation. At about 9.03 p.m., Hans Flöter, a young theology student, was walking past the south-western corner of the dark and deserted Reichstag when he heard the sound of breaking glass. When he turned round he saw a man with a burning object in his hand. He raced off and found a police officer, Sergeant Karl Buwert. When the two men reached the scene of the crime, they could see a man rushing from window waving a flaming torch.
Buwert was joined by several other policemen and eventually entered the building. It was Constable Helmut Poeschel who arrested van der Lubbe at 9.27. He later reported that he "was a tall, well-built young man, completely out of breath and dishevelled". Poeschel searched him and all he found was a "pocket knife, a wallet, and a passport". (13)
Marinus Van der Lubbe was interviewed by Zirpins. He admitted setting fire to the Reichstag but claimed that he had no connections with the German Communist Party (KPD) or the Social Democratic Party (SDP). However, back home in Leiden, 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". (14)
Van der Lubbe took Detective-Inspector Helmut Heisig back to the Reichstag building. "Van der Lubbe led us. We neither indicated the direction nor influenced him in any way. He was almost delighted to show us the path he had taken. He said he had an excellent sense of direction because of his poor eyesight. Another sense had taken the place of his eyes." (15)
Foreign newspapers reported that the Nazi government had probably been behind the fire. Willi Frischauer, the Berlin correspondent for the Vienna newspaper, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, commented that on the night of the fire that he believed that the Nazis where behind the fire: "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." (16)
This view was shared by the British journalist, Seftan Delmer: "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." (17)
This was also the view of most people living in Germany. Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary: "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." (18)
According to the first person who interviewed Marinus van der Lubbe he was "as silent as a wall" and that he was either "an idiot or one cool customer". Eventually the young Dutchman admitted that he had set fire to the Reichstag with firelighters and his own clothing. "The first fire went out. Then I lit my shirt on fire and carried it farther. I went through five rooms." (19)
Van der Lubbe denied that he was part of a Communist conspiracy and had no connections with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) or German Communist Party (KPD). He insisted that he acted alone and the burning of the Reichstag was his own idea. He went on to claim, "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." (20) Hermann Göring, who was in control of the investigation, ignored what van der Lubbe had said and on 28th February, he made a statement stating that he had prevented a communist uprising. (21)
On 3rd March, van der Lubbe made a full confession: "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." (22)
Ian Kershaw has suggested that Lubbe was motivated by a sense of injustice: "He was... a solitary individual, unconnected with any political groups, but possessed of a strong sense of injustice at the misery of the working class at the hands of the capitalist system. In particular, he was determined to make a lone and spectacular act of defiant protest at the Government... in order to galvanize the working class into struggle against their repression." (23)
On 9th March, 1933, three Bulgarians, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, were also arrested after a suspicious waiter informed the police that they had been acting strangely. Dimitrov had been a trade union activist before helping to form the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1919. Dimitrov went to live in the Soviet Union but in 1929 he moved to Berlin where he became head of the Central European section of Comintern. (24) However, the Nazi government was unaware that Dimitrov was one of the most important figures in the "international Communist movement". (25)
Detective-Inspector Walter Zirpins became convinced that these men had told van der Lubbe to carry out the attack on the Reichstag. "I am convinced that he (Marinus van der Lubbe) did it all by himself... A man who is willing to carry out revolutionary intrigues on his own account is just what the Communist Party needs. In the Party's hands, van der Lubbe became a willing tool, one who, while believing he was shifting for himself, was being shifted from behind the scenes. No wonder then that the Communist Party was so delighted to use him." (26)
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). (27)
Detective-Inspector Walter Zirpins, was given the job of interviewing people who came forward with information about the fire. He eventually came to the conclusion that he had enough evidence to charge Ernst Torgler. He claimed that "three eye-witnesses saw van der Lubbe in the company of Torgler... before the fire. In view of van der Lubbe's striking appearance, it is impossible for all three to have been wrong." (28)
While in prison awaiting trial Torgler was supplied with information that suggested that Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Ernst Röhm, were involved in starting the fire. He refused to believe the story: "Van der Lubbe and old acquaintance of Röhm and on his list of catamites? Could Goebbels really have planned the fire, and could Göring, standing, as it were, at the entrance of the underground tunnel, really have supervised the whole thing?" (29)
Kurt Rosenfeld, had been Torgler's lawyer for many years. However, like other socialists and communists in Germany, fled the country when the Nazi government began arresting left-wing opponents of the regime and sending them to concentration camps. In August 1933, Torgler was forced to employ a lawyer, Alfons Sack, who was a member of the Nazi Party. (30)
Sack hesitated about defending Torgler as he was aware that if he did a good job, and his client was found not guilty, he faced the possibility of imprisonment. "I was concerned with only one question: is the man guilty or is he innocent? Only if I could be reasonably certain that Torgler had entered politics for idealistic reasons and not for selfish motives and that he had never made personal capital out of his political beliefs, would I find it within me to accept his defence." Sack eventually came to the conclusion that Torgler was telling the truth. (31)
The trial of Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev began on 21st September, 1933. The presiding judge was Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bürger of the Supreme Court. The accused were charged with arson and with attempting to overthrow the government. (32)
Douglas Reed, a journalist working for The Times, described the defendants in court. "A being (Marinus van der Lubbe) of almost imbecile appearance, with a shock of tousled hair hanging far over his eyes, clad in the hideous dungarees of the convicted criminal, with chains around his waist and wrists, shambling with sunken head between his custodians - the incendiary taken in the act. Four men in decent civilian clothes, with intelligence written on every line of their features, who gazed somberly but levelly at their fellow men across the wooden railing which symbolized the great gulf fixed between captivity and freedom.... Torgler, last seen by many of those present railing at the Nazis from the tribune of the Reichstag, bore the marks of great suffering on his fine and sensitive face. Dimitrov, whose quality the Court had yet to learn, took his place as a free man among free men; there was nothing downcast in his bold and even defiant air. Little Tanev had not long since attempted suicide, and his appearance still showed what he had been through, Popov, as ever, was quiet and introspective." (33)
On the opening day of the trial Ernst Torgler received a message from Wilhelm Pieck, the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) in exile. It said that he was to take the first opportunity to "disown Dr. Sack as an agent of Hitler". He was also told to state in court that Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels had set the Reichstag on fire. "I argued with myself for at least twenty-four hours. If I compiled, I would cause a sensation and that would make an extremely good headline. But what would happen to me?" Torgler concluded that if he did this he was "signing his own death warrant" and decided to allow Sack to defend him in court. (34)
The main witness against Torgler was Gustav Lebermann, who was at the time serving a prison sentence for theft and fraud. In court he alleged that he had first met Torgler in Hamburg on 25th October 1931. He was told to prepare for a "big job" in the future. On 6th March, 1933, Torgler offered him 14,000 marks, if he set fire to the Reichstag building. Lebermann claimed that when he refused Torgler punched him in the abdomen.
Torgler told the court: "All I can say regarding this evidence is how astonished I am that anyone should utter such lies before the highest Court of the land. I have never seen this man in my life. I have never been in Hamburg for any length of time, and when I did go to Hamburg it was merely to attend meetings of the Union of Post Office Workers... Not a single word the witness has spoken is true. Everything he says is a lie, from start to finish." (35)
Berthold Karwahne, Stefan Kroyer and Kurt Frey all testified that they saw Torgler with Marinus van der Lubbe. However, they were all senior officials in the Nazi Party and very few people believed their stories. Torgler, claimed that the man they thought was Van der Lubbe, was a journalist, Walther Oehme. When he was interviewed by the Gestapo, he denied that he met Torgler at the time. However, on the 28th October, he testified that he had been wrong and had in fact, been with Torgler at the time he had originally stated. This incensed the Public Prosecutor, who realised that the court was now unlikely to convict him. (36)
Georgi Dimitrov constantly passed comments on proceedings. Fritz Tobias has commented: "The great pomp with which the trial was conducted did not impress Dimitrov for a single moment. His intelligence was razor-sharp and, unlike his two compatriots, he had a good command of the German language, and was therefore able to expose the prosecution's case for the sham it was." (37)
Dimitrov was first expelled for the first time on 6th October 1933. According to foreign press, he was ejected for "quite inexplicable reasons" or "on a ridiculous pretext". He was actually removed for accusing the Gestapo for adding a cross over the Reichstag on a map he had purchased. The judge ruled that he had been taken from the court "for disobeying repeated admonitions to desist from insulting police officers". (38)
Dimitrov persistently refused to allow his Government-nominated counsel, Dr Teichert, to act on his behalf. On 12th October he was expelled from the court once again. In a letter to Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bürger he pointed out that the German Supreme Court had rejected every one of the eight lawyers he had selected. Therefore, he argued: "I had no option but to defend myself as best I could. As a result I have been compelled to appear in Court in a double capacity: first as Dimitrov, the accused, and second as the defender of the accused Dimitrov." (39)
At this time, the German government, had not taken full control of the court system. Judge Bürger held conservative views and was a member of the right-wing, German National People's Party (DNVP), "for all his political prejudices, was a lawyer of the old school, and stuck to the rules." Bürger was so impressed with Dimitrov's letter he gave permission for him to represent himself in court. Something he did with "ingenuity and skill". (40)
Dimitrov became the "hero" of the trial. "Dimitrov... was always polite and courteous, but the attacks on the Nazis and his comments on the judges and the manner in which they were conducting the trial were sharp, bitter and ironic. On one occasion he would declare that the verdict of the trial was already fixed, and not by the court. On another occasion, he accused the Nazis themselves of setting the Reichstag on fire." (41)
The indictment against Dimitrov read: "Although Dimitrov was not caught red-handed at the scene of the crime, he nevertheless tock part in the preparations for the burning of the Reichstag. He went to Munich in order to supply himself with an alibi. The Communist pamphlets found in Dimitrov's possession prove that he took part in the Communist movement in Germany...The charge rests on the basis that this criminal outrage was to be a signal, a beacon for the enemies of the State who were then to launch their attack on the German Reich, to destroy it and to set up in its place a dictatorship of the proletariat, a Soviet State, at the orders of the Third International."
Professor Emile Josse, lecturer on thermodynamics at the Berlin Technical College, argued in court that van der Lubbe could not have set fire to the Reichstag on his own. Dimitrov, commented: "I am glad that the experts too are of the opinion that van der Lubbe could not have acted all by himself. This is the only point in the indictment with which I am in complete accord... I wish once more and for the last time to ask van der Lubbe. As was already said, he was not alone. His conduct, his silence makes it possible for innocent people to be accused along with him. I would not ask van der Lubbe about his accomplices, had his act been revolutionary, but it is counter-revolutionary." Van der Lubbe refused to answer. (42)
Van der Lubbe admitted that he had made three failed attempts at arson on 25th February in different buildings in Berlin. Dimitrov asked van der Lubbe: "Why were you unable to set fire to the small charity institution, yet managed to set fire to the large stone building of the Reichstag, and in just a quarter of an hour at that?... The Communist International demands full clarity on the question of the Reichstag fire. Millions are waiting for an answer!" (43)
Dimitrov was also allowed to cross-examine Hermann Göring in court. Göring kept his expectant audience waiting and arrived over an hour late: "Göring entered the room in the brown uniform, leather belt and top boots of an S.A. leader. Everyone jumped up as if electrified, and all Germans, including the judges, raised their arms to give the Hitler salute." (44)
Dimitrov's first question concerned an interview on 28th February, 1933, where he claimed that when van der Lubbe was arrested, he had a German Communist Party membership card in his pocket. He asked Göring how he knew this? He replied: "I do not run about or search the pockets of people. If this should still be unknown to you, let me tell you: the police examines all great criminals and informs me of its findings". Dimitrov then shocked the court by claiming: "The three officials of the criminal police who arrested and first interrogated van der Lubbe unanimously declared that no membership card was found on Lubbe. From where has the information about the card come then, I should like to know?"
Dimitrov then went on to ask Göring why he immediately announced that it was Communists who had set the Reichstag on fire: "After you, as Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, had declared that the incendiaries were Communists, that the German Communist Party had committed the crime with the aid of van der Lubbe as a foreign Communist, did this declaration on your part not serve to direct the police inquiry and afterwards - the Court investigations in a certain direction, excluding the possibility of looking for other ways and means of finding the true incendiaries of the Reichstag?"
Göring replied: "The criminal police will investigate all traces, be sure of it. I had only to establish: was this a crime beyond the political sphere or was it political in character. For me it was a political crime and I was also convinced that the criminals had to be looked for in your Party". He then shook his fists at Dimitrov and shouted. "Your Party is a Party of criminals, which must be destroyed! And if the hearing of the Court has been influenced in this sense, it has set out on the right track.... the German people know that here you are behaving insolently, that you have come here to set fire to the Reichstag. But I am not here to allow you to question me like a judge and to reprimand me! In my eyes you are a scoundrel who should be hanged." Dimitrov's questioning of Göring was considered so successful that he was expelled from the court for three days. (45)
Georgi Dimitrov returned on the 8th October and was now allowed to cross-examine Joseph Goebbels. He obviously agreed to this as he was confident that he was clever enough to deal with Dimitrov. He was asked: "Does the witness, both as head of the National Socialist Party propaganda and as Propaganda Reichsminister, know whether it is true that the setting on fire of the Reichstag was immediately used by the Government and the Propaganda Ministry as a pretext to stifle the electoral campaign of the Communist Party, the Socialist and other opposition parties?"
Goebbels replied: "I must explain the following: the necessary measures were taken by the police. We did not need to use any propaganda, because the Reichstag fire was actually only a confirmation of our struggle against the Communist Party and we could merely add the burning of the Reichstag to the collection of adequate proofs against the Communist Party as a new evidence, there being no need to launch a special propaganda campaign."
Dimitrov then asked the killer question: "Did not he himself deliver a speech broadcast over the radio, branding the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party as authors of the Reichstag fire? Not only against the Communist Party but also against the Social Democratic Party?" Dimitrov's purpose in asking the question was quite clear. If Goebbels now admitted he had been wrong about the Social Democrats, might he not have been equally wrong about the Communists?
Goebbels replied: "When we accused the Communist Party of being the instigator of the Reichstag fire, the continuous line from the Communist Party to the Social Democratic Party was immediately apparent; because we do not share the bourgeois viewpoint that there is a fundamental difference between the Social Democratic and the Communist Party - something which is confirmed by the German politics of fourteen years. For us there was a difference between these two organizations only in tactics, only in the pace, but not in the principles, nor in the basic positions. When, therefore, we accused Marxism in general and its most acute form - Communism, of intellectual instigation, and maybe even of practical implementation of the Reichstag fire, then this attitude by itself meant that our national task was to destroy, to wipe off the face of the earth the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party."
Dimitrov then suggested that the Nazi Party agreed with violence if it was used against left-wing activists. He mentioned the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht: "Is it true that the National Socialist Government has granted a pardon to all terrorist acts carried out to further the aims of the National Socialist movement?" Goebbels replied that: "The National Socialist Government could not leave in prisons people who, risking their lives and health, had fought against the Communist peril." (46)
One of the main witnesses against Ernst Torgler was the journalist Walther Oehme. He denied that he had been with him at the time of the fire and contradicted Torgler's earlier statement. However, on the 28th October, he testified that he had been wrong and had in fact, been with Torgler at the time he had originally stated. This incensed the Public Prosecutor, who realised that the court was now unlikely to convict him. (47)
On the 6th December, 1933, Time Magazine reported that Marinus van der Lubbe had made an important confession: "Marinus van der Lubbe, who has sat as though drugged or stupefied for weeks on end, suddenly leaped to his feet, clear-eyed and bubbling with protests which he hurled at Presiding Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bünger." The magazine added that van der Lubbe shouted: "This trial began in Leipzig, then moved to Berlin, and now we are back in Leipzig but nothing ever happens. I don't agree to that! I burned down the Reichstag and I want to have my sentence - twenty years in prison or Death! I have been questioned for over eight months. I want something to happen! This trial has now been going on for two months. How long is it going to take to get a verdict?" The Chief Prosecutor stated: "This trial has lasted so long because you will not reveal your accomplices." Lubbe replied, "I set the fire. None of these other defendants had anything to do with it." (48)
Douglas Reed, reporting the trial for The Times, commented: "Attempts from all sides of the court to wrest from van der Lubbe the secret of his accomplices, however, were parried in a manner that indicted either great cunning or the sincere conviction that he had none... There remained only two possibilities - that van der Lubbe had no accomplices or that he did not himself know who they were. The one man from whom, it had been thought, the secret might yet be wrested, either would not yield it or had none to yield." (49)
On 16th December, 1933, Georgi Dimitrov was allowed to make his final speech to the court. "I am defending myself, an accused Communist. I am defending my political honour, my honour as a revolutionary. I am defending my Communist ideology, my ideals. I am defending the content and significance of my whole life. For these reasons every ward which I say in this Court is a part of me, each phrase is the expression of my deep indignation against the unjust accusation, against the putting of this anti-Communist crime, the burning of the Reichstag, to the account of the Communists." (50)
Dimitrov talked about previous attempts to use forged documents to accuse left-wing activists of attempting to cause revolutions. This included the case of the Zinoviev Letter. In September 1924 MI5 intercepted a letter signed by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, and Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were urged to promote revolution through acts of sedition. The publication of the letter in the Daily Mail helped to bring down Ramsay MacDonald, and the Labour government. (51)
Dimitrov explained: "I should like also for a moment to refer to the question of forged documents. Numbers of such forgeries have been made use of against the working class. Their name is legion. There was, for example, the notorious Zinoviev letter, a letter which never emanated from Zinoviev, and which was a deliberate forgery. The British Conservative Party made effective use of the forgery against the working class."
Another aspect of his speech dealt with the funding of the Nazi Party. He claimed that industrialists such as Alfried Krupp and Fritz Thyssen, had provided money to Adolf Hitler in order to produce legislation that was hostile to trade unions. "This struggle taking place in the camp of the National Front was connected with the behind-the-scenes struggle in Germany's leading economic circles. On the one hand was the Krupp-Thyssen circle (the war industry), which for many years past has supported the National Socialists; on the other hand, being gradually pushed into the background, were their opponents. Thyssen and Krupp wished to establish the principle of absolutism, a political dictatorship under their own personal direction and to substantially depress the living standards of the working class; it was to this end that the crushing of the revolutionary working class was necessary."
Dimitrov also attacked his fellow defendant, Marinus van der Lubbe: "What is van der Lubbe? A Communist? Inconceivable. An Anarchist? No. He is a declassed worker, a rebellious member of the scum of society. He is a misused creature who has been played off against the working class. No, he is neither a Communist nor an Anarchist. No Communist, no Anarchist anywhere in the world would conduct himself in Court as van der Lubbe has done. Genuine Anarchists often do senseless things, but invariably when they are haled into Court they stand up like men and explain their aims. If a Communist had done anything of this sort, he would not remain silent knowing that four innocent men stood in the dock alongside him. No, van der Lubbe is no Communist. He is no Anarchist; he is the misused tool of fascism." (52)
On 23rd December, 1933, Judge Wilhelm Bürger announced that Marinus van der Lubbe was guilty of "arson and with attempting to overthrow the government". Bürger concluded that the German Communist Party (KPD) had indeed planned the fire in order to start a revolution, but the evidence against Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, was insufficient to justify a conviction. (53)
On 9th January, 1934, when the Public Prosecutor informed Marinus van der Lubbe that his appeal for clemency had been rejected, and that he was to be beheaded the following morning, he answered: "Thank you for telling me: I shall see you tomorrow." When he was led out of his cell, he looked calm and peaceful. Judge Wilhelm Bürger attended and saw the executioner, who was dressed in tails, top hat and white gloves, carried out the beheading. (54)
The Nazi daily newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, condemned the verdict of not guilty against Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, as a miscarriage of justice "that demonstrates the need for a thoroughgoing reform of our legal life, which in many ways still moves along the outmoded liberalistic thought that is foreign to the people". (55)
Adolf Hitler was furious that the rest of the defendants were acquitted and he decided that in future all treason cases were taken from the Supreme Court and given to a new People's Court, set up on 24th April 1934, where prisoners were judged by members of the Nazi Party. It was also announced that Ernst Thalmann, the leader of the KPD, had been charged with planning a revolutionary uprising. (56)
While the Reichstag Fire was going on in 1933, a Commission of Inquiry into the Burning of the Reichstag was established and presided over by an "International Committee of Jurists and Technical Experts" in London. Using evidence such as the Oberfohren Memorandum and the Karl Ernst confession. It eventually reported that "Van der Lubbe was not a member of the Communist party, that no connection whatever could be traced between the Communist party and the burning of the Reichstag, and that the Reichstag was set on fire by, or on behalf of, leading members of the National Socialist party." (57)
Willi Münzenberg was a leading figure in the KPD. After narrowly escaping arrest he moved to Paris where he established the World Committee Against War and Fascism. The group, that included people such as Heinrich Mann, Charlotte Despard, Sylvia Pankhurst, Ellen Wilkinson, Vera Brittain, Storm Jameson, Ella Reeve Bloor, John Strachey, Kurt Rosenfeld, Norman Angell and Sherwood Anderson, established an investigation into the Reichstag Fire.
Münzenberg arranged for the publication of the book, The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag. With a cover designed by John Heartfield, the book argued that Hermann Göring was responsible for the Reichstag Fire. The historian A. J. P. Taylor, has pointed out: "Münzenberg and his collaborators were a jump ahead of the Nazis. Not only had they the evidence of the experts, demonstrating that van der Lubbe could not have done it alone and therefore implicating the Nazis; they also produced a mass of evidence to show how the Nazis had done it. The vital point here was an underground passage from Göring’s house to the Reichstag, which carried electric and telephone cables and pipes for central heating. Through this passage some S.A. men (Brown Shirts) were supposed to have entered the Reichstag." (58)
Münzenberg became the key figure in propaganda campaign that attempted to show that Adolf Hitler was behind the burning of the Reichstag. "He (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 and newspapers which he financed and directed, though his name nowhere appeared." (59)
The name of Otto Katz appeared on the cover of The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag. However, it was the work of a small group of communist journalists. Alfred Kantorowicz was one of those involved in producing the booklet: "The world at large learned of the history of this fire and of the true incendiaries from the Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag, which contained a complete and irrefutable body of evidence." (60)
The book included a document that became known as the Oberfohren Memorandum. Published in April 1933, it was claimed to have been written by Ernst Oberfohren, the former Parliamentary leader of the German National People's Party (DNVP). The document stated that Hermann Göring and Edmund Heines, had organized the Reichstag fire. "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." Oberfohren was unable to confirm the authenticity of the document as he had committed suicide on 7th May, 1933. (61)
Another document published in the book was a letter signed by Karl Ernst, a leading figure in the Sturmabteilung (SA). He confessed that on the orders of Göring and Wolf von Helldorf, he along with Edmund Heines, had helped to set fire to the Reichstag. "Helldorf told me that the idea was to find ways and means of smashing the Marxists once and for all". "We spent hours settling all the details. Heines, Helldorf and I would start the fire on the 25th February, eight days before the election. Göring promised to supply incendiary material of a kind that would be extremely effective yet take up very little space."
Ernst went on to point out: "A few days before the fixed date, Helldorf told us that a young fellow had turned up in Berlin of whom we should be able to make good use. This fellow was the Dutch Communist van der Lubbe. I did not meet him before the action. Helldorf and I fixed all the details. The Dutchman would climb into the Reichstag and blunder about conspicuously in the corridor. Meanwhile I and my men would set fire to the Session Chamber and part of the lobby. The Dutchman was supposed to start at 9 o'clock - half an hour later than we did.... Van der Lubbe was to be left in the belief that he was working by himself." (62)
Karl Ernst said that he had signed this document on 3rd June, 1934, because he feared for his life. "I am doing so on the advice of friends who have told me that Göring and Goebbels are planning to betray me. If I am arrested, Göring and Goebbels must be told at once that this document has been sent abroad. The document itself may only be published on the orders of myself or of the two friends who are named in the enclosure, or if I die a violent death." Ernst was in fact executed on 30th June, 1934, as part of the Night of the Long Knives. (63)
At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial attempts were made to discover who started the Reichstag Fire. General Franz Halder argued that at a luncheon on the birthday of Adolf Hitler in 1942 the conversation turned to the topic of the Reichstag building and its artistic value. "I heard with my own ears when Hermann Göring interrupted the conversation and shouted: The only one who really knows about the Reichstag is I, because I set it on fire!" (64)
Hans Gisevius, an official of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior at the time of the fire. He disapproved of the illegal activities of the Nazi government and resigned his post. He later went to work with Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster of Abwehr. Gisevius joined the German resistance and was passing information to John Foster Dulles of the Office of Strategic Services. He managed to flee to Britain and gave evidence at Nuremberg.
Gisevius claimed: "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." (65)
However, at the trial, Göring insisted that he had not been responsible for the fire. "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." (66)
Göring's biographer, Richard Overy, agrees and argues in his book, Goering: The Iron Man (1984), that the Reichstag Fire was not a Nazi conspiracy: "The burning of the Reichstag building on the night of 27 February was thus not the occasion for the onset of attacks on the Communist Party but merely allowed the scope of such attacks to be extended. The evidence is now well established that Göring is not the fire-raiser." (67)
Journalists who visited the scene at the time, such as Seftan Delmer, were convinced that several people had to be involved in starting the fire. (68) William L. Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959) believes that Karl Ernst and a group of SA men were involved in the act of arson. (69) Martin Sommerfeldt, Göring's press officer, also claimed that the Reichstag was set on fire "by an handful of Storm Troopers". (70) This was also the view of Hans Gisevius, and in his book, To The Bitter End (1947), he argued that the Nazis had been responsible for the Reichstag Fire. (71)
According to A. J. P. Taylor, because of the testimony of people such as Gisevius, the vast majority of historians believed that the Reichstag Fire had been started by agents of the Nazi government: "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." (72)
Martin Sommerfeldt worked for Hermann Göring in 1933. After the war he wrote his memoirs, I Was There (1949). In the book he wrote in detail about the Reichstag Fire. On the night of 28th February, Göring asked Sommerfeldt to find out as much as he could about the event. He reported to Göring that Marinus van der Lubbe had been arrested in the building: "I learned that the fire was discovered at 9 p.m. by a civilian who notified the nearest policeman. The latter alerted a police patrol, the police-station alerted the fire brigade, etc. The policeman saw a man tugging wildly at a curtain over one of the large panes in the lobby, and fired a shot at him. When the police entered the building, they found burning firelighters everywhere, which suggested arson. They managed to collect about a hundredweight of this material, and arrested a man who seemed to be running berserk in the corridors. The man was carrying firelighters on his person." (73)
Göring asked Sommerfeldt: "Why mention a single man (Marinus van der Lubbe)? There were ten or even twenty men! Don't you understand what's been happening? The whole thing was a signal for a Communist uprising!" Sommerfeldt disagreed: "I do not think so, Minister. No one has mentioned anything of the sort, not even Diels, whom I saw in the Reichstag. He merely thought that the Communists might have been responsible. I must insist, Minister, that my report is based on the official findings of the fire brigade and the police."
Martin Sommerfeldt later claimed that Göring told him he would write his own report: "Göring started dictating to his secretary without once stopping, but glancing at a piece of paper now and then. He gave it out as an established fact that the Reichstag fire had been intended as a signal for a Communist campaign of bloodshed and arson. He ordered the police to take all Communist officials into protective custody and to confiscate all Marxist newspapers. Göring multiplied my own figures by ten, with a side-long glance in my direction." (74)
By talking to senior figures in the Nazi Party, Sommerfeldt became convinced that Joseph Goebbels was the one responsible for the Reichstag Fire. This came initially from a conversation with Ernst Röhm: "I dropped a gentle hint that the Reichstag fire trial had led to personal differences between Göring and myself, and Röhm asked in surprise: "What on earth did Göring have to do with the whole business?" He then went on to claim that the "devil Goebbels was responsible". (75)
"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." Sommerfeldt also got information from Karl Ernst and Rudolf Diels on the fire: "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." (76)
Sommerfeldt added that this showed that all the Nazi leaders thought one another "capable of any piece of villainy". He was also aware that some people thought that because he was close to Göring, he was also part of the conspiracy: "This very fact was enough to stamp me an incendiary as well. It is understandable, therefore, why this stupid charge suggested to me that the accusations against the others might be just as false." (77)
In 1960, Fritz Tobias, a retired civil servant, 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. (78) 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 the "Obeffohren Memorandum" had been written by them. (79)
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." (80)
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". (81) 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. (82)
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". (83)
When Alan Bullock published his revised edition of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) he agreed that he had 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." (84)
Tobias now became the standard explanation for the Reichstag Fire. However, that changed in 1969 when the "European Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Reasons and Consequences of the Second World War" published its report on Nazi crimes. Edouard Calic, a historian from Yugoslavia, who chaired the committee, claimed that they found evidence of a government conspiracy and rejected the idea that Marinus van der Lubbe acted on his own.
The committee attempted to explain if it was possible for one man to set fire to the vast and sturdily constructed stone-building single-handed. It has been pointed out that the fire had broken out in over twenty different places simultaneously. One of its main witnesses was a retired senior German judge who presided over a secret trial several months after the Reichstag Fire. He admitted that during the proceedings members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) admitted they had set fire to the building on the orders of Hermann Göring. He claimed that all these men who were involved, including Karl Ernst and Edmund Heines, were murdered during the Night of the Long Knives. (85)
Calic claimed that after interviewing forty witnesses, they had a detailed account of what happened on 27th February, 1933. "We have now got a complete and mutually corroborative account of just how the Reichstag was set on fire by a mixed gang of Brown Shirts and SS Black Guards. This mosaic of witnesses' stories which all back each other up and complete the picture show that the arsonists assembled 48 hours beforehand in the adjoining house of Field Marshal Göring and reached the Reichstag on the night it burned by slipping through a tunnel linking the heating systems of the two buildings. This has always been suspected but never proved conclusively before."
"The crucial evidence is also available of how the Nazis got hold of the Dutchman van der Lubbe and conned him into thinking that he was carrying out the operation alone. He was lured to Berlin through advertisements and reports deliberately planted in Dutch Communist newspapers by the Germans, calling for volunteers for dangerous work. In fact the whole job was sponsored by the Nazi Party machine and with the knowledge of the Gestapo, including the police, who saw to it afterwards that the evidence was produced so that van der Lubbe could be duly executed. To avoid international complications with the West and Russia the Nazis did not insist on the punishment of the Bulgarian and German Communists who were accused with him." (86)
The committee also heard from a policeman who was never called to give evidence at the first trial because his story did not fit in with the official version. He testified that when he arrived on the scene shortly after the first flames were spotted he saw fire spurting from the stenographers room in the parliament hall, "a point which van der Lubbe never approached and therefore, could never have set on fire." (87)
Further evidence of a Nazi conspiracy came in 2001. After examining over 50,000 pages of hitherto unexamined documents from former East German and Soviet archives, four leading German historians, Hersch Fischler, Jurgen Schmaedeke, Alexander Bahar and Wilfred Kugel, concluded that the fire was a Nazi plot. The most important evidence they discovered was that Adolf Rall, a Nazi stormtrooper, told prosecutors that Karl Ernst had "ordered them to enter the Reichstag through a tunnel and sprinkle flammable liquid inside". Ernst told them "that an excuse was needed to begin attacking Communists".
This historians found evidence that a former stormtrooper working in the jail where Rall was serving a sentence, heard of his statement and tipped off the SA. Its leaders are then said to have arranged for the statements to be destroyed by accomplices in the prosecutors' office and for him to be murdered. His remarks however are said to have been referred to in other papers found in the archives. The historians - writing in the journal Historische Zeitschrift - accused Fritz Tobias of "wanting to dispel the odium of arson from National Socialism" through his claims. (88)
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 countermeasures. The Bolshevik rebellion must first of all flare up; only then shall we hit back.
The first fire went out. Then I lit my shirt on fire and carried it farther. I went through five rooms.... I do nothing for other people, all for myself. No one was for setting the fire. 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.
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. As I entered, Goering came towards me. His voice was heavy with the emotion of the dramatic moment: "This is the beginning of the Communist Revolt, they will start their attack now! Not a moment must be lost."
Goering could not continue. Hitler turned to the assembled company. Now I saw that his face was purple with agitation and with the heat. He shouted uncontrollably, as I had never seen him do before, as if he was going to burst: "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.
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.
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.
"This is a God-given signal! If this fire, as I believe, turns out to be the handiwork of Communists then there is nothing that shall stop us now crushing out this murder pest with an iron fist."
Adolf Hitler, Fascist Chancellor of Germany, made this dramatic declaration in my presence tonight in the hall of the burning Reichstag building.
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. One of the incendiaries, a man aged thirty, was arrested by the police as he came rushing out of the building, clad only in shoes and trousers, without shirt or coat, despite the icy cold in Berlin tonight.
Five minutes after the fire had broken out I was outside the Reichstag watching the flames licking their way up the great dome into the tower.
A cordon had been flung round the building and no one was allowed to pass it.
After about twenty minutes of fascinated watching I suddenly saw the famous black motor car of Adolf Hitler slide past, followed by another car containing his personal bodyguard.
I rushed after them and was just in time to attach myself to the fringe of Hitler's party as they entered the Reichstag.
Never have I seen Hitler with such a grim and determined expression. His eyes, always a little protuberant, were almost bulging out of his head.
Captain Goring, his right-hand man, who is the Prussian Minister of the Interior, and responsible for all police affairs, joined us in the lobby. He had a very flushed and excited face.
'This is undoubtedly the work of Communists, Herr Chancellor,' he said.
"A number of Communist deputies were present here in the Reichstag twenty minutes before the fire broke out. We have succeeded in arresting one of the incendiaries."
"Who is he?" Dr Goebbels, the propaganda chief of the Nazi Party, threw in.
"We do not know yet," Captain Goring answered, with an ominously determined look around his thin, sensitive mouth. 'But we shall squeeze it out of him, have no doubt, doctor.'
We went into a room. "Here you can see for yourself, Herr Chancellor, the way they started the fire," said Captain Goring, pointing out the charred remains of some beautiful oak panelling.
"They hung cloths soaked in petrol over the furniture here and set it alight."
We strode across another lobby filled with smoke. The police barred the way. "The candelabra may crash any moment, Herr Chancellor," said a captain of the police, with his arms outstretched.
By a detour we next reached a part of the building which was actually in flames. Firemen were pouring water into the red mass.
Hitler watched them for a few moments, a savage fury blazing from his pale blue eyes. Then we came upon Herr von Papen, urbane and debonair as ever. Hitler stretched out his hand and uttered the threat against the Communists which I have already quoted. He then turned to Captain Goring. "Are all the other public buildings safe?" he questioned.
"I have taken every precaution," answered Captain Goring. "The police are in the highest state of alarm, and every public building has been specially garrisoned. We arc waiting for anything."
It was then that Hitler turned to me. "God grant", he said, "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."
And then something touched the rhetorical spring in his brain. "You see this flaming building," he said, sweeping his hand dramatically around him. "If this Communist spirit got hold of Europe for but two months it would be all aflame like this building."
By 12.30 the fire had been got under control. Two Press rooms were still alight, but there was no danger of the fire spreading. Although the glass of the dome has burst and crashed to the ground the dome still stands.
So far it has not been possible to disentangle the charred debris and see whether the bodies of any incendiaries, who may have been trapped in the building, are among it.
At the Prussian Ministry of the Interior a special meeting was called late tonight by Captain Goring to discuss measures to be taken as a consequence of the fire.
The entire district from the Brandenburg Gate, on the west, to the River Spree, on the east, is isolated tonight by numerous cordons of police.
A few of my department were already engaged in interrogating Marinus Van der Lubbe. Naked from the waist upwards, smeared with dirt and sweating, he sat in front of them, breathing heavily. He panted as if he had completed a tremendous task. There was a wild triumphant gleam in the burning eyes of his pale, haggard young face.
The voluntary confessions of Marinus Van der Lubbe prevented me from thinking that an arsonist who was such an expert in his folly needed any helpers. He had been so active that he had laid several dozen fires. With a firelighter he had set the chamber aflame. Then he had rushed through the big corridors with his burning shirt which he brandished in his right hand like a torch. During the hectic activity he was overpowered by Reichstag officials. I reported on the results of the first interrogations of Marinus Van der Lubbe - that in my opinion he was a maniac. But with this opinion I had come to the wrong man; Hitler ridiculed my childish view.
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. On Saturday, the 4th, I heard a part of Hitler's speech from Koenigsberg. The front of a hotel at the railway station, illuminated, a torchlight procession in front of it, torch-bearers and swastika flag-bearers on the balconies and loudspeakers, I understood only occasional words. But the tone! The unctuous bawling, truly bawling, of a priest.
I can only repeat that I set fire to the Reichstag all by myself. There is nothing complicated about this fire. It has quite a simple explanation. What was made of it may be complicated, but the fire itself was very simple.
Six red-robed judges of the German Supreme Court started violently and some half rose from their chairs. Without warning the Dutch Sphinx of the Reichstag Fire Trial, ox-dumb Marinus van der Lubbe who has sat as though drugged or stupefied for weeks on end, suddenly leaped to his feet, clear-eyed and bubbling with protests which he hurled at Presiding Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bünger.
"This trial began in Leipzig," he shouted, "then moved to Berlin, and now we are back in Leipzig but nothing ever happens. I don't agree to that! I burned down the Reichstag and I want to have my sentence - twenty years in prison or Death! I have been questioned for over eight months. I want something to happen! This trial has now been going on for two months. How long is it going to take to get a verdict?"
"This trial has lasted so long," cut in Chief Prosecutor Werner, "because you will not reveal your accomplices."
"That was all cleared up long ago!" cried the Dutchman. "I set the fire. None of these other defendants had anything to do with it. A symbolism has come into this trial and I protest against it!"
Nazis charge that the fire was set by Communists as the symbol of and signal for a nation-wide Communist revolt. Not the slightest proof of this ever materialized, the Nazis themselves assuming all power instead and using the Reichstag fire as an excuse for Chancellor Hitler's repressive acts. Last week amid Firebug van der Lubbe's passionate protest, Judge Bunger suspended the trial for half an hour and the Dutchman was led below. When brought back into court he again seemed stupefied as in the past but suddenly began to writhe and gasp as though struggling to throw off his stupor. "I can't say anything," he moaned at last. "I have just been below. I have voices in my body. There are voices in my cell!"
"What do the voices tell you?" asked Judge Bunger.
"They tell me what is happening... But I alone set the fire!"
"What did the others, your accomplices, think about it?" insisted the Judge.
"What others? Can you name them?... I want an ordinary trial and an ordinary sentence for myself!"
With blood spurting in Germany from the severed neck of this or that Communist nearly every week, normal, healthy Storm Troopers assumed that Germany's Supreme Court could not do less last week than order death for the five defendants in the Reichstag fire trial as all five were Communists of sorts.
"The Reichstag fire is the most shameful crime in all history," declared Prussian Premier Hermann Wilhelm Göring two days before the Supreme Court's verdict was expected. "The prisoners who sit in the dock at Leipzig are far worse than ordinary criminals!" That clinched the death sentences in the minds of simple Storm Troopers. Few of them knew or cared that State Prosecutor Karl Werner, after hurling philippics for weeks at the five Reds, had ended by admitting that the State had no case against three of them, the Bulgarians Dimitroff, Taneff and Popoff. Against the German prisoner, Comrade Ernst Torgler, onetime Reichstag whip of the German Communist Party, Prosecutor Werner summed up thus: "When I put everything together I come to the conclusion that Torgler, in some way or other, had an active part in the Reichstag fire. The nature of such participation has not been "shown in the proceedings before this court." On this basis Prosecutor Werner asked the Court to sentence Comrade Torgler to death. He also asked death for the fifth and last prisoner, famed Dutch Brickmason Marinus Van der Lubbe who was brought up from his cell in a stupor at every session of his trial but one. On that one day Van der Lubbe had shouted: "I have been questioned for over eight months!... Nothing ever happens. I don't agree to that!... I set the fire. None of the other defendants had anything to do with it... I want to have my sentence - 20 years in prison or death!"
Just before 9 a. m. one day last week Judge Wilhelm Bünger and his five red-robed colleagues marched into the Supreme Court's dingy chamber to make known their verdict. They gave the Nazi salute. Court attendants and the audience returned it. In the prisoners' dock the Dutchman drooped, the German fidgeted, two of the Bulgars looked nervous but George Dimitroff, the fiery walking delegate of the World Communist Party who heckled Premier Göring into a jittery rage during the trial, looked confident. Judge Bünger read the Supreme Court's verdict slowly. Much of it was a denunciation of what he called "those senseless legends": the legend that Van der Lubbe was the queer tool of queer Nazis who used and helped him to set the fire; the legend that Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, now Minister of Propaganda & Public Enlightenment, conceived the idea of firing the Reichstag, blaming Communists for the deed and using it as the excuse for Chancellor Hitler's suppression of the Communist, Socialist and other German parties; the legend that Nazi firebugs escaped down the underground passage connecting the Reichstag with the official residence of General Göring, leaving Van der Lubbe to wave his burning shirt in the Reichstag and be arrested.
Turning from these legends. Judge Bünger said: "The Communist Party in Germany had been working for a long time to gain power and awaited only a favorable constellation. The court takes the view that Van der Lubbe was a Communist and still is a Communist. Decidedly, this Reichstag fire was no act of individual terror but an act of mass terror which was designed to be the overture to a general strike and a revolutionary movement."
The Court, added Judge Bünger, could not accept Van der Lubbe's confession that he set the fire alone. The Court was sure he had accomplices. Who they were the Court did not know. But the Court was sure they were Communists.
"Stand up!" Judge Bünger ordered at last.
"The accused Torgler, Popoff. Dimitroff and Taneff are acquitted. The accused Lubbe, on ground of High Treason in connection with seditious arson and attempted simple arson is condemned to death and to perpetual loss of civil rights."
Oxlike Van der Lubbe showed not a flicker of emotion.
"I demand the floor!" shouted George Dimitroff. "In the name of the world proletariat... " Judge Bünger cut the battling Bulgar short. "This trial," he shouted, "is finished!"
It was not finished for Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands. Whatever else Van der Lubbe may be he is her subject. Vigorously the Dutch Crown demanded through diplomatic channels commutation of the death sentence. Germany's law making death the penalty for "seditious arson," argued the Crown, did not exist when the Reichstag was set afire. It was decreed by President von Hindenburg on Chancellor Hitler's advice next day and made retroactive. To the four acquitted prisoners nothing was plainer than that they stood to be lynched. All submitted gratefully to remaining for the present in "protective custody."
Finally, to Storm Troopers and to the Nazi rank & file, nothing was more shockingly apparent than that the Supreme Court had proved itself unworthy of Nazidom.
"Downright Judicial Blunder!" screamed a bulletin from the Nazi Party official news bureau. "We demand a fundamental reform of our judicial system. To avert another such decision German Justice must be purged of outworn, alien and liberal conceptions."
At a luncheon on the birthday of Hitler in 1942 the conversation turned to the topic of the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears when Goering interrupted the conversation and shouted: "The only one who really knows about the Reichstag is I, because I set it on fire!" With that he slapped his thigh with the flat of his hand.
I, the undersigned, Karl Ernst, S.A. Gruppenführer, Berlin Brandenburg, Prussian State Councillor, born on September 1st 1904 in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, herewith put on record a full account of my part in the Reichstag fire. I am doing so on the advice of friends who have told me that Göring and Goebbels are planning to betray me. If I am arrested, Göring and Goebbels must be told at once that this document has been sent abroad. The document itself
may only be published on the orders of myself or of the two friends who are named in the enclosure, or if I die a violent death.
I hereby declare that, on February 27th, 1933, I and two Unterführer named in the enclosure, 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. What I do regret deeply is that our action helped scum like Göring and Goebbels to rise to the top, men who have betrayed the S.A., who betray our Führer every day, and who use lies and slander to destroy the Chief of Staff and the S.A. The S.A. is the strongest weapon our movement has.
I am a National Socialist. I am convinced that National Socialism stands and falls with the S.A. A few days after we seized power, Helldorf asked me to go with him to Göring's that evening. On the way, Helldorf told me that the idea was to find ways and means of smashing the Marxists once and for all. When we got there, I was surprised to see that Goebbels, too, had turned up, and that he had worked out a plan: when the Führer's plane touched down in Breslau, where he was to address an election meeting, two "Communists" would attack him, thus providing the pretext for a campaign of retribution. Heines had been summoned to Berlin to discuss all the details. The Berlin-Brandenburg group of the S.A. was to stand ready. Helldorf would be told all the details within the next two days.
Two days later, we met again at Göring's, but this time without Goebbels. Göring had decided against the whole plan; he felt it might give undesirable elements the wrong ideas. He added that Goebbels disagreed with him, and implored us to do our best to talk him round. He had advised Heines to postpone his trip to Berlin for a few days.
Next day, I was ordered to report to Goebbels. I arrived last, and found that the others had all agreed to drop the original plan. Göring suggested a number of alternatives including the firing of the Palace and the bombing of the Ministry of the Interior. It was then that Goebbels said with a smile that it would be far better to set the Reichstag on fire, and then to stand up as the champions of parliamentarianism. Göring agreed at once. Helldorf and I were against the plan because we thought the practical difficulties involved were far too great. We pointed out that starting a fire in the Palace was much easier, because there was hardly anyone on guard there. But in the end, we were won over by Göring and Goebbels. We spent hours settling all the details. Heines, Helldorf and I would start the fire on the 25th February, eight days before the election. Göring promised to supply incendiary material of a kind that would be extremely effective yet take up very little space. On February 25th, we would all hide in the Reichstag Party rooms until everyone had left, and then set to work. The technical arrangements were left to me. When I called on Göring next day, he had suddenly grown less confident. He was afraid that our hanging about was bound to be noticed on a Saturday, when the Reichstag closed earlier than usual. He also felt that it would be wrong to let known S.A. leaders do the actual work. If one of us were caught, everything would be lost. He telephoned Goebbels, who turned up soon afterwards. Göring mentioned his objections, but Goebbels pooh-poohed them all.
Even so, we had to give up our plan in the end, when we realized that the Communists, whose Party rooms were opposite ours, kept very late hours. There was every reason to fear that they might spot us.
In the meantime Röhm had come to Berlin, and Heines, Killinger, Helldorf and I discussed the whole question with him over a meal. It was decided that none of us must take any part in the fire because the danger to the Party was far too great. Killinger recommended leaving all the dirty work to a few S.A, men who could later be got out of the way. Röhm felt he must make absolutely sure he was appointed State-Security Commissar before the fire....
A few days before the fixed date, Helldorf told us that a young fellow had turned up in Berlin of whom we should be able to make good use. This fellow was the Dutch Communist van der Lubbe. I did not meet him before the action. Helldorf and I fixed all the details. The Dutchman would climb into the Reichstag and blunder about conspicuously in the corridor. Meanwhile I and my men would set fire to the Session Chamber and part of the lobby. The Dutchman was supposed to start at 9 o'clock - half an hour later than we did.
The main difficulty was keeping to a precise timetable. The Dutchman had to climb into the Reichstag after we had left, and after the fire had already started. In order to familiarize him with the place, Helldorf sent him on a tour of inspection into the Reichstag. Apart from that he was made to learn the plan of the whole Reichstag by heart with the help of a very accurate map and with Sander's constant prodding. We decided that van der Lubbe must climb into the Reichstag restaurant, not only because that was the simplest way in, but also because, if he were caught, we should still have plenty of time to get away. To make perfectly certain that van der Lubbe would not take fright or change his mind at the last moment, Sander would not leave his side all afternoon. He would escort him to the Reichstag and watch him climb in from a safe distance. As soon as he was sure that van der Lubbe was in, he was to telephone Hanfstaengl and Göring. Van der Lubbe was to be left in the belief that he was working by himself.
I met my two helpers at eight o'clock precisely on the corner of Neue Wilhelmstrasse and Dorotheenstrasse. We synchronized our watches with Sander's. We were all dressed in civilian clothes. A few minutes later we were at the entrance to Göring's residence. We slipped into the passage unnoticed. Hanfstaengl had diverted the watchman. At about 8 o'clock we reached the dead-end branch. Here we had to wait until 8.40 p.m., i.e. until the guard had
finished his round. Then we pulled galoshes over our shoes and walked on as silently as we could. We entered the Session Chamber at 8.45 p.m. One of my helpers went back to the dead-end branch to fetch the rest of the incendiary material. We started with the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Hall and the Session Chamber, where we prepared a number of fires by smearing chairs and tables with the phosphorus mixture and by soaking curtains and carpets in paraffin. At exactly 9.05 p.m. we had finished, and started on our way back. It was high time - the phosphorus was fixed to go off within 30 minutes. At 9.12 we were back in the boiler-house and at 9.15 we climbed across the wall.
The allegations published abroad against any others are false. We three did the work entirely by ourselves. Apart from Göring, Goebbels, Röhm, Heines, Killinger, Hanfstaengl and Sander, no one knew about our plan.
The Führer, too, is said not to have known until later that the S.A. set the Reichstag on fire. I do not know about that. I have served the Führer for eleven years, and I shall remain faithful to him unto death. What I have done every other S.A. man would gladly have done for his Führer. But I cannot bear the thought that the S.A. was betrayed by those it helped to bring to power. I confidently believe that the Führer will destroy the dark plotters against the S.A. I am writing this confession as my only insurance against the evil plans of Göring and Goebbels. I shall destroy it the moment these traitors have been paid out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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....
The compilers of the Brown Book also showed that van der Lubbe, far from being a Socialist of some intelligence, was a degenerate half-wit, and a homesexual prostitute, kept by the S.A. leader, Röhm.
This is the story that we all believed in 1933 and that most have gone on believing from that day to this. The evidence for it has now been examined by Herr Tobias. The result is very like the Sheep’s shop in Alice Through The Looking-Glass: Whenever Alice looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.
Each piece of evidence dissolves when closely examined; yet all the time you have the impression that the rest of the evidence must be solid. Take, for instance, the allegation that the fire-brigades were deliberately delayed. This is disproved by the service-books at brigade headquarters.
Again, nearly all the books say that the records of van der Lubbe’s interrogations by the police have mysteriously disappeared. Herr Tobias found them at the office where they had always been – in eight copies. The blackening of van der Lubbe’s character was peculiarly unscrupulous. After all, he had done something to show his enmity to the Nazis, which is more than the compilers of the Brown Book had done.
They obtained a statement from a Dutch friend of his. One sentence read: "I often spent a night in the same bed with him." There was the proof of his homosexual character. As a matter of fact, the sentence originally went on: "... without observing any homosexual tendencies in him."
All the stories about van der Lubbe’s bad upbringing, about his disreputable family, about his lack of friends, were in fact lies, Communist forgeries.
The vital evidence, however, was about the tunnel and its use by the party of Brown Shirts. This evidence was supposed to have been provided by unnamed Brown Shirts who repented and confessed secretly to the Communist exiles in Paris. One Brown Shirt appeared before the counter-trial, muffled to the eyes. This was a wise precaution: he was in fact a well-known Communist, and unmistakably Jewish.
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.
The mysterious tunnel presents some other odd features. Immediately Goering arrived in the Reichstag building, at 9.35pm, he exclaimed: "They [the fire-raisers] must have come through the tunnel." He went off with policemen – not with Nazis – to examine it. They found the doors at either end securely locked.
It was surely risky of Goering to search the tunnel if he was in the plot and knew that the Brown Shirts were on the way out. He and the police might have caught them. On the other hand, it was highly incompetent of the Brown Shirts, if there were any, to lock the doors. They ought to have left some indication of how the supposed Communists came in and went out.
The very fact that no serious evidence was ever produced against the Communists really acquits the Nazis also. For if the Nazis had, indeed, set fire to the Reichstag, they would have manufactured evidence against the Communists – as the Communists later tried to manufacture evidence against them.
All the evidence of the Brown Book breaks down, in its turn, on close examination. After all, it was not designed to be presented at a real trial. If it achieved a propaganda effect against the Nazis, Münzenberg and his assistants were satisfied. The more we look at the story, the clearer it becomes that, whatever else happened that night, no one came through the tunnel. There was no other way to enter the Reichstag, except past the night-porter; or by breaking a window. No one went past the porter. Only van der Lubbe broke a window.
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.
The most emphatic expert was a crank distrusted by his colleagues. He claimed to be an authority on a strange ‘fluid’ which, he said, was necessary for starting fires. He alleged that this ‘fluid’ had a distinctive smell. No fireman, no policeman, noticed any smell except smoke – no ‘fluid,’ not even petrol. Against this rigmarole, we can set the solid opinion of the police and of the fire-officers that van der Lubbe’s story was perfectly consistent with the facts as they knew them.
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.
There is one worrying point. The postman left the Reichstag at 8.55. Van der Lubbe broke in almost immediately afterwards, within a matter of minutes. How did he know when it was safe to break in? The only answer can be: he did not know. We have to assume a lucky coincidence, from his point of view. It is a smaller assumption than that demanded by any other story.
There has been an outcry in Germany, and still more in Communist countries, that Herr Tobias, by making this case, has whitewashed the Nazis. Even if this were true, it would be the fault of those who manufactured the Brown Book, not of Herr Tobias. That is the worst of forgeries: ultimately they come home to roost.
But the new version does not, in fact, acquit the Nazis. Even if they had nothing to do with the fire, even if they genuinely believed that it was the work of Communists, this does not justify their subsequent illegalities and the reign of terror. They remain the evil men they always were.
But the affair should change our estimate of Hitler’s methods. He was far from being the far-sighted planner that he is usually made to appear. He had a genius for improvization; and his behaviour over the Reichstag fire was a wonderful example of it. When he became Chancellor, he had no idea how he would transform his constitutional position into a dictatorship. The solution came to him in a flash as he stood among the smouldering ruins of the Reichstag that February evening.
It was, in his own words, "a heaven-sent opportunity"; and we can agree with him that it came to him by chance from outside, though hardly from heaven. That is the way of history. Events happen by chance; and men then mould them into a pattern. Van der Lubbe set fire to the Reichstag; but the legend that the Nazis did it will probably prove indestructible.
The first documentary evidence has emerged to support the view that the Nazis started the 1933 Reichstag fire that Hitler used as a pretext to establish a dictatorship.
While historians have agreed that there is no substance to Nazi claims that German Communists were to blame for the blaze, there has also been a lack of evidence to back the widely held belief that Hitler's supporters burnt down the parliament building in Berlin.
After poring over 50,000 pages of hitherto unexamined documents from former East German and Soviet archives, four leading German historians have now concluded that the fire was a Nazi plot. Marinus van der Lubbe, 24, a pro-Communist Dutch labourer, was beheaded by the Nazis after admitting that he started the blaze alone to encourage a workers' uprising.
The news magazine Der Spiegel backed this version of events in the 1960s after a wide-ranging investigation. Now, however, the four historians argue that Der Spiegel's coverage was part of a cover-up by Nazi sympathisers to protect the culprits from prosecution. Their findings put them at odds with other leading academics.
They base their case on remarks by Adolf Rall, a thief and Nazi stormtrooper, whose body was found in woods near Berlin in November 1933. Rall is said to have told prosecutors of a meeting of the SA stormtroopers during which the SA leader, Karl Ernst, ordered them to enter the Reichstag through a tunnel and sprinkle flammable liquid inside.
Ernst is said to have told his men that an excuse was needed to begin attacking Communists. Hitler used the fire to justify the arrest and torture of 25,000 Left-wing activists and to pass an emergency decree establishing absolute Nazi authority.
According to the historians, a former stormtrooper working in the jail where Rall was serving a sentence, heard of his statement and tipped off the SA. Its leaders are then said to have arranged for the statements to be destroyed by accomplices in the prosecutors' office and for him to be murdered.
His remarks however are said to have been referred to in other papers found in the archives. The four historians - Hersch Fischler, Jurgen Schmaedeke, Alexander Bahar and Wilfred Kugel - say Nazi complicity in the blaze was kept secret by ex-Nazi journalists after the war.
Der Spiegel's investigation in the 1960s was led by the historical researcher Fritz Tobias. His findings have been backed by the historian Hans Mommsen and are supported by one of his British counterparts, Ian Kershaw, in his recent work Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris.
The historians - writing in the journal Historische Zeitschrift - accuse Mr Tobias of "wanting to dispel the odium of arson from National Socialism" through his claims. Mr Tobias has defended himself, saying: "I was born into a Social Democratic household and am the last person to want to exculpate Hitler and his consorts."
Last week, Der Spiegel published a 10-page rebuttal of the four historians' conclusions. It said: "The thesis which holds that van der Lubbe was the only arsonist involved remains the most plausible explanation." Although Mr Tobias was not an ex-Nazi, the magazine conceded that other former members had been employed.
On Feb. 27, 1933, the building was destroyed - and no matter who did it, the Nazis got what they wanted. It’s a semi-mystery that’s over eight decades long: who set fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament, on Feb. 27, 1933?
Marinus van der Lubbe, an unemployed Dutch bricklayer linked to the Communist party, was tried and executed for the crime the following year...
In 1981, a West Berlin court declared that the trial had been "a miscarriage of justice," though they stopped short of saying that he had been innocent. In 2001, evidence emerged that the conspiracy theory had been right along, with historians announcing that the Nazis had been the ones responsible for the fire, though even then others disagreed - and, as recently as 2014, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum noted that "the origins of the fire are still unclear."
But, while van der Lubbe’s life still hung in the balance, reporting on the aftermath of the fire made clear that, whoever set the spark, the aftermath had already been determined by Nazi powers, in their own favor...
The “juggernaut” of new decrees included increasing the weaponry provided to Nazi troops (despite violation of the Treaty of Versailles) and the transfer of the majority of state powers from President Paul von Hindenburg to Hitler and his cabinet. Rights ensured by the German constitution were suspended, and a gag rule was placed on foreign journalists within the country, with severe punishments for violation. The German government was moved from Berlin to Potsdam. Within the month, Time reported that nearly all of the country’s leading Communists and Socialists were in jail. By April, Nazis were using the threat of another fire to ensure the passage of the Enabling Act, which solidified Hitler’s place as dictatorial leader for years to come.
Whether Nazi involvement in the Reichstag fire was direct or indirect or, improbably, nonexistent, the result was the same.