After the general election in October, 1919, Aleksandar Stamboliyski, the leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, became prime minister. His election was unpopular with the ruling class and was murdered during a military coup on 9th June, 1923. Stamboliyski was replaced by Aleksandar Tsankov, who attempted to crush left-wing political groups. In 1923 Tanev managed to escape to Yugoslavia.
After the Russian Revolution leading members of the Communist Party founded the Communist International (later known as Comintern). The aim of the organization was to fight "by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State". Lenin believed that to create the "foundations of the international Communist movement" was more important "than to conquer just Russia for the Revolution". (2)
Gregory Zinoviev, was elected chairman of the Comintern and one of his recruits was Vassili Tanev. Over the next few years he used various pseudonyms to travel around Europe helping to promote communist revolution. In 1933 he found himself living in Berlin with two other agents, Georgi Dimitrov and Blagoi Popov.
On 27th February, 1933, the Reichstag building caught fire. It was reported at ten o'clock when a Berlin resident telephoned the police and said: "The dome of the Reichstag building is burning in brilliant flames." The Berlin Fire Department arrived minutes later and although the main structure was fireproof, the wood-paneled halls and rooms were already burning. (3)
Hermann Göring, who had been at work in the nearby Prussian Ministry of the Interior, was quickly on the scene. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels arrived soon after. So also did Rudolf Diels, who was later to become the head of the Gestapo: "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." (4)
On 3rd March, Marinus 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." (5)
Göring refused to believe this story and urged Detective-Inspector Walter Zirpins, who was leading the investigation, to find evidence that the Reichstag Fire was the result of a communist conspiracy. After the government promised a 20,000 marks to anyone who provided information that led to a conviction in the case, Zirpins received a call from a waiter, Johannes Helmer, who worked at the Bayernhof Restaurant. Helmer claimed that he had seen Van der Lubbe with three foreigners in the restaurant. (6)
The other eight waiters at the restaurant disagreed with Helmer but he continued to insist he was right: "In my opinion this man (Marinus van der Lubbe) is certainly one of the guests who repeatedly came into the cafe with the Russians. All of them struck me as suspicious characters, because they spoke in a foreign language, and because they all dropped their voices whenever anyone went past their table." (7)
Helmer was told to contact the police the next time the three men returned to the restaurant. This happened on 9th March and the three men, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, were arrested. A journalist, Ernst Fischer, was also in the restaurant at the time: "Round the table sat a big, broad-shouldered man (Dimitrov) with a dark, lion's mane, and two younger men, slighter in build and less striking in appearance. The detective asked them to come along. The big, broad-shouldered man produced his papers." (8)
The men were carrying false papers but the police soon discovered that the documents had been produced at a shop linked to the KPD. When they went to their lodgings they found communist leaflets. After further questioning the men admitted that they were Bulgarians rather than Russians. However, the police still not realise that Dimitrov was the head of the Central European section of Comintern and one of the most important figures in the "international Communist movement". (9)
Georgi Dimitrov, Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev were indicted on charges of setting the Reichstag on fire. The trial 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. (10)
Soon after his arrest Tanev had tried to kill himself. According to 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." (11)
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 Georgi Dimitrov, Ernst Torgler, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, was insufficient to justify a conviction. (12)
Vassili Tanev went to live in the Soviet Union. However, this was a dangerous time to be a member of the Comintern. Joseph Stalin began to grow concerned about the supporters of Leon Trotsky fighting in the war against fascism in Spain. Alexander Orlov and his NKVD agents had the unofficial task of eliminating the Trotskyites fighting for the Republican Army and the International Brigades. This included the arrest and execution of leaders of the Worker's Party (POUM), National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996) has pointed out: "Stalin had a secret and extremely important aim in Spain: to eliminate the supporters of Trotsky who had gathered from all over the world to fight for the Spanish revolution. NKVD men, and Comintern agents loyal to Stalin, accused the Trotskyists of espionage and ruthlessly executed them." (13)
Georgi Dimitrov, who for a long time had been an advocate of world revolution, was also investigated. The NKVD put together a special file against Dimitrov but he was never arrested. Stalin told him that "all of you in the Comintern are hand in glove with the enemy". (14) However, many of his friends were put on trial during the Great Purge. "Scores of functionaries in its Executive Committee as well as its various departments were executed." (15)
Dimitrov's two comrades, Vassili Tanev and Blagoi Popov, who had been charged with the Reichstag Fire, were also arrested (16) When he appealed on behalf of the two men, Stalin shrugged: "What can I do for them, Georgi? All my own relatives are in prison too." (17)
Vassili Tanev was eventually released but he was killed during a mission in Bulgaria in 1941.
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."
(1) Ron Christenson, Political Trials in History: From Antiquity to the Present (1991) page 107
(2) Adam B. Ulam, The Bolsheviks (1998) page 493
(3) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 286
(4) Rudolf Diels, Lucifer Ante Portas: From Severing to Heydrich (1950) page 221
(5) Marinus van der Lubbe, statement (3rd March, 1933)
(6) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 94
(7) Alfons Sack, The Reichstag Fire Process (1934) page 32
(8) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 95
(9) Henry Gifford, The Reichstag Fire (1973) page 71
(10) Konrad Heiden, Hitler: A Biography (1936) page 437
(11) Douglas Reed, The Burning of the Reichstag (1934) page 90
(12) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 68
(13) Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin (1996) page 392
(14) Alexander Dallin, Dimitrov and Stalin (2000) page 32
(15) Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (2004) page 391
(16) Roy A. Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971) page 221
(17) Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) page 297