The Reichstag Fire - How History is Created
(Der Reichstagbrand - Wie Geschichte gemacht wird

Adolf Hitler

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On February 27, 1933 the Berlin Reichstag, the seat of Germany’s parliament, was set on fire. Shortly after the fire began, the Dutch left-wing radical Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested at the scene of the crime, apparently as the sole culprit.

Even before his identity was established, the Nazi leaders accused the German Communist Party (KPD) of having committed arson. According to Nazi propaganda, the Reichstag fire was intended as a signal for a communist uprising that had long been planned—a claim for which there was not a shred of evidence. In actual fact, the KPD leadership was neither willing nor able to organize such an uprising, so the Reichstag fire could not have been a signal for it.

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.

There were still millions of workers organized in the SPD (Social Democrats), the KPD and the trade unions who were prepared to fight against the Nazis. The results of the March elections made this clear: the SPD and the KPD were still able to garner a combined vote of 13.2 million, the same number of votes they had received during the last elections in 1932. The NSDAP (Nazis) received 17.2 million votes (compared to 11.7 million in the 1932 elections), but were not able to gain an absolute majority of votes on their own. This was only possible with the aid of their German Nationalist allies from the “Kampffront Schwarz-Rot-Weiss”.

It was the SPD leadership’s capitulation before the Nazis and the division of the workers due to the “social fascism theory” propagated by the leaders of the Stalinist KPD that prevented National Socialism from being stopped at the last minute and combated.

As early as 1931, Leon Trotsky already formulated the task at hand in his open letter to the members of the KPD, How Can National Socialism be Defeated?

The front must now be directed against fascism. And this common front of direct struggle against fascism, embracing the entire proletariat, must be utilised in the struggle against the Social Democracy, directed as a flank attack, but no less effective for all that.

It is necessary to show by deeds a complete readiness to make a bloc with the Social Democrats against the fascists in all cases in which they will accept a bloc... We must understand how to tear the workers away from their leaders in reality. But reality today is-the struggle against fascism...

The overwhelming majority of the Social Democratic workers will fight against the fascists, but--for the present at least--only together with their organisations. This stage cannot be skipped. We must help the Social Democratic workers in action--in this new and extraordinary situation--to test the value of their organizations and leaders at this time, when it is a matter of life and death for the working class. (1)

As we know, history took a different turn: the Nazis were victorious, and the German and European working class suffered its worst and most devastating defeat. The authors leave no doubt as to the fact that the leaders of both the SPD and the KPD bear decisive responsibility for this defeat. This is made particularly clear in the authors’ portrayal of the so-called “Prussian coup,” the ouster of the SPD-led Prussian government in July 1932 by the Reich Chancellor (head of government) of the time, Franz von Papen. Although the majority of their members were only waiting for the word to offer massive resistance, the SPD and trade union leaders didn’t put up even the semblance of a fight against Papen’s “cold coup d’etat,” and thus paved the way for the Nazis.

Who were the arsonists?

To this very day, there is hardly any event in German history that has been debated as heatedly as the issue of who really set the Reichstag on fire.

In years of meticulous research, the two authors of the book Der Reichstagbrand, historian Alexander Bahar and physicist and psychologist Wilfried Kugel, carried out the first comprehensive evaluation of the 50,000 pages of original court, state attorney office and secret police (Gestapo) files that had been locked away in Moscow and East Berlin until 1990. The result is a remarkable and explosive, more than 800-page document that for the first time provides almost complete circumstantial evidence that the Nazis prepared and set the Reichstag fire themselves.

The authors have thus succeeded in disproving a hypothesis that even today is still fairly widespread: that the Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe was the sole perpetrator. They “base their evidence largely on original documents that are stored in public archives, but have not been evaluated up to now... The book contradicts in many ways all of the research reports that have been published so far on the Reichstag fire, based on what the authors say is the first thorough evaluation of all presently available relevant sources... In summary, the authors have succeeded after years of work in presenting a comprehensive chain of circumstantial evidence—albeit one that will only have a conclusive character for those readers who are prepared to take on the intellectual challenge presented by the often highly complex and convoluted aspects of this case of political crime.” (2)

Bahar and Kugel describe the two contradictory hypotheses as to who was actually responsible for setting the fire as follows:

As incontestable as it is that the Nazis benefited from the Reichstag fire and made skillful use of it in establishing their dictatorship, opinion remains divided as to who actually committed the deed. The communists accused by the Nazi authorities at the Reichstag Fire Trial in Leipzig were already ruled out in 1933 for obvious reasons: quite apart from the lack of evidence, the suicidal and thus nonsensical nature of such a deed was self-evident, despite Nazi propaganda to the contrary. So did Marinus van der Lubbe, the 75% vision-impaired Dutch left-wing radical communist arrested in the burning Reichstag set the fire on his own? Or were the culprits to be found among the Nazis? (3)

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. “Everyone abroad was and remains convinced that the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag.” (4)

In Germany, however, the legend of Marinus van der Lubbe as the sole perpetrator was created after 1945 by the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, and his former staff. Diels, who was in charge of the sweeping arrests carried out on the night of the fire, had every reason to exonerate the Nazi rulers after World War II, since he was deeply involved in the Reichstag fire himself. As the authors explain:

Six hours before the Reichstag fire, Rudolf Diels, head of the ... Political Police since February 23, 1933 and subsequently head of the Secret State Police Office (Gestapo), wrote the following police radio telegram which was sent to all police stations in Prussia at about 6:00 p.m.: ‘Communists reportedly plan to carry out systematic raids on police squads and members of nationalist associations with the aim of disarming them.’ ... ‘Suitable countermeasures are to be taken immediately, and where necessary communist functionaries placed under protective custody.’ (5)

The arrests carried out the next night had thus already been initiated by Rudolf Diels, the Chief of the Political Police, on the afternoon of February 27. (6)

The authors prove that it would have been impossible for Marinus van der Luppe to set on fire a building as large as the Reichstag on his own, by reconstructing in minute detail the course of the fire on the basis of countless testimony documents and investigation and court files (particularly in Chapters 2 and 4).

Their conclusion is that “the ‘culprit’ van der Lubbe had even less time to carry out his alleged act of arson than has hitherto been assumed, namely only 12 to 13 minutes... The view often expressed in historical literature that the Reichstag arson had taken Göring, Göbbels and Hitler ‘by surprise’ must now presumably be regarded once and for all as a myth.” (7)

In Chapters 5 to 7, the authors document the proceedings at the so-called Reichstag Fire Trial, which began on September 21, 1933 in Leipzig, and then present the circumstantial evidence for the guilt of the Nazis. The exact evaluation of all of the fire expert reports leads to one conclusion: “ All of the fire experts agreed that the fire in the Reichstag assembly hall had to have been set by several culprits. Van der Lubbe’s self-incrimination was thus proved to be a lie.” (8)

In the trial before the Leipzig Reichsgericht court, which the Nazis had originally planned as a show trial, the accused were “van der Lubbe and comrades.” The Dutchman’s alleged “comrades” were Ernst Torgler, the former chairman of the KPD parliamentary group in the Reichstag, and three Bulgarian communists who were living illegally in Germany: Georgi Dimitrov, who had been the head of the Berlin-based Western European Office of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (Third International) until early 1933, Blagoj Popov and Vasil Tanev. Despite coerced witnesses (including concentration camp prisoners), planted and forged “evidence,” and torture and terror against the accused, the Nazis never succeeded in proving the alleged guilt of the communists. Dimitrov’s undaunted conduct in court, in particular, added to the embarrassment for the Nazi leaders. The Reichsgericht passed its verdict on December 23, 1933: “The accused Torgler, Dimitrov, Popov and Tanev are acquitted.” Marinus van der Lubbe, the only “presentable” culprit, was sentenced to death and executed on January 10, 1934, despite the existing expert opinions and testimony which conclusively ruled out the Dutchman as the sole perpetrator.

Finally, the authors expose the Nazis as the only feasible culprits. Among the documentary evidence the authors base this verdict on is the testimony of SA member Adolf Rall (who was later murdered by the SA and the Gestapo). The emigré newspaper Pariser Tageblatt reported on DEcember 24, 1933: “he (Rall) stated he was a member of the SA’s “Sturm 17” unit. Before the Reichstag fire broke out, he had been in the subterranean passageway that connects the Reichstag assembly building to the building in which the government apartment of the Reich President [Hermann Göring] is located. Rall said that he had personally witnessed various members of his SA unit bringing the explosive liquids into the building.” (10)

Hans Bernd Gisevius, who had worked as a junior lawyer for the political police from August to December 1933, made the following testimony at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in 1946:

It was Göbbels who first came up with the idea of setting fire to the Reichstag. Göbbels 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. (11)

Based on this testimony and a wealth of other circumstantial evidence, the course of this act of arson can be reconstructed as follows:

On February 27, 1933, at about 8:00 p.m. a commando group of at least 3, and at most 10 SA men led by Hans Georg Gewehr entered the basement of the palace of the Reichstag President. The group took the incendiary substances deposited there, and used the subterranean passageway to go from the Reichstag President’s palace to the Reichstag building, where they prepared the assembly hall in particular with a self-igniting liquid they probably mixed in the hall. After a certain latency period, the liquid set off the fire in the assembly hall. The group made their getaway through the subterranean passageway and the basement of the Reichstag President’s palace (and possibly also through the adjacent basement leading to the machinery and government employees’ building) to the public street ‘Reichstagsufer.’ Göring entered the burning Reichstag building at 9:21 p.m. at the latest, presumably in order to provide a cover for the commando group’s retreat.

Van der Lubbe was brought to the Reichstag by the SA at exactly 9:00 p.m. and let into the building by them. The sound of breaking glass which was noticed by witnesses and which was allegedly due to van der Lubbe breaking window panes to get into the building was probably only intended to attract the attention of the public. The Dutchman was sacrificed as the only available witness. (12)

Almost all of the SA men involved in the deed (with the exception of Hans Georg Gewehr) and many accessories to the crime were later murdered by the Nazis during the so-called “Röhm putsch” on June 30, 1934.

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. With their new book Der Reichstagbrand, Alexander Bahar and Wilfried Kugel have provided authoritative evidence to finally dispel the longstanding controversy.

References

(1) Leon Trotsky: Portrait des National Sozialismus, Arbeiterpresse Verlag, Essen 1999
(2) A. Bahar and W. Kugel: Der Reichtagsbrand, edition q, Berlin 2001
(3) ibid
(4) Braunbuch über Reichstagsbrand und Hitlerterror, Universum-Bücherei, Basle 1933
(5) Bahar and Kugel
(6) ibid
(7) ibid
(8) ibid
(9) Walther Hofer et. al.: Der Reichstagsbrand, Arani-Verlag, Berlin 1972/1978, revised new edition: Ahriman-Verlag, Freiburg 1992
(10) Bahar and Kugel
(11) ibid
(12) ibid., preliminary remarks “Reconstruction of the Reichstag arson”

Sefton Delmer: The Reichstag Fire

I saw the Reichstag fire not only from the outside, but the inside – in all senses of the word. And as a result I formed a view of its origin very different from the legend accepted by historians.



The news that the Reichstag was burning came to me from one of the many petrol station attendants to whom I had given my card with a request to ring me if anything noteworthy happened nearby. There were no taxis to be seen, and I had already put my car in the garage a quarter of a mile away. So I ran, ran and ran the whole mile and a half from my office to the Reichstag.

I got there at a quarter to ten – just forty minutes after the first alarm had been given. Already there were quite a few people standing around, watching the flames funnelling up through the great glass dome in a pillar of fire and smoke. Every minutes fresh trains of fire engines were arriving, their bells clanging as they raced through the streets.

An excited policeman told me, "They've got one of them who did it, a man with nothing but his trousers on. He seems to have used his coat and shirt to start the fire. But there must be others still inside. They're looking for them there."

As I was scouting around, I ran into Douglas Reed of the Times. He told me how he had managed to get into the building but had been thrown out immediately by Göring. 'Beaten by that staid old slow coach, the Times!' I thought. 'What ignominy!' I went on with my walk around the building, talking to as many people as I could in an effort to find out what had happened. And there under the trees of the Tiergarten, and just opposite the Reichstag entrance I saw a familiar figure: Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, Editor of the Nazi Völkischer Beobachter and Hitler's number one adviser on foreign affairs. He had been driving home through the Tiergarten in his car, Rosenberg told me, when he noticed the fire.

"I only hope," Rosenberg said gloomily, "that this is not the work of our chaps. It's just the sort of damn silly thing some of them might do!"

Which, whatever you may think about the origins of that fire, shows that there was at least one Nazi who had nothing to do with it.

And then Karl Hanke, the bearded secretary of Dr. Göbbels, came puffing up. He had been compelled to leave his car, because the police would not let it through the cordon.

"Hello Hanke," I said, "where are you off to?"

"I am going inside to see what is happening," Hanke replied.

"The Führer wants me to report to him. He is over at the Göbbels's."

"Well I wish you'd report to me as well, when you get out."

"I will, old boy, I will," he promised, and rushed off.

What had happened, as I later discovered, was that Hanfstängl, who was trying to sleep off an attack of flu in a room of Göring's presidential palace opposite to the Reichstag, had been awakened by the fire engines. He looked out of his window, saw the fire, rushed to the telephone and called Goebbels.

"The Reichstag is on fire," he almost shrieked. "Tell the Führer."

"Oh, stop that nonsense, Putzi. It is not even funny," answered Göbbels.

"But I am telling the truth."

"I am not listening to any more of your stale jokes. Go back to bed. Good night!" And Göbbels hung up.

The trouble was that just about four days earlier that merry little prankster Göbbels, to amuse Hitler, had played a telephone hoax on Hanfstängl. And when Hanfstängl called him with the Reichstag fire alarm he thought he was being hoaxed back.

But Hanfstängl rang again. "Look here! What I am telling you is the absolute truth. It is your duty to tell the Führer. If you don't I guarantee there'll be trouble!" Even no Goebbels would not believe him. However, this time he did pass the message to Hitler, who was in the next room talking to the fair Magda and a blond film starlet whom Magda had invited for the delectation of the Führer. (Hitler, so I was frequently assured by his paladins, found looking at beautiful blondes soothing for his nerves.) Now Hitler send Hanke to find out whether Hanfstängl was speaking the truth.

I read for the first time Göbbels' hand-written entry about the Reichstag fire. As he described it, he was at his home with Hitler on that evening of February 27, 1933, when the phone rang at nine o'clock. It was the prankster "Putzi" Hanfstängl, saying: "The Reichstag's on fire." Göbbels remembered that he'd been had twice by Hanfstängl already that week, and he thought this was another prank, so he just put the phone down.

Hanfstängl phoned again and said, "You'd better listen to what I'm saying, The Reichstag's on fire." Göbbels realized this could be serious after all, so he made a phone call to the police station at the Brandenburg Gate, which confirmed that the Reichstag was on fire. Thereupon he and Hitler jumped into a car and drove straight to the Reichstag where they found their worst fears confirmed. This is in the hand-written diary, it is obviously genuine, and it confirms what we know from other sources.

~David Irving

I was still waiting for Hanke to come out and give me an eyewitness description of what was gong on inside, when two black Mercedes cars drove through the police cordon. I knew those cars.

"That's Hitler, I'll bet!" I said to a man beside me. I ducked under the rope the police had just put up to keep spectators back and rushed across to check up. I got to the Reichstag entrance Portal Two, it was just as Hitler jumped out and dashed up the steps two at a time, the tails of his trench coat flying, his floppy black artist's hat pulled down over his head. Göbbels and the bodyguard were behind him.

"Mind, I come along too?" I said to Sepp Dietrich. "Try you luck!" grinned Sepp. "Pop along in."

Inside the entrance stood Göring, massive in a camel hair coat, his legs astride like some Frederician guardsman in a UFA film. His soft brown hat was turned up in front in what was called 'Potsdam' fashion. He was very red in the face and glared disapprovingly at me. How he would have loved to have thrown me out. But Hitler had just said "Evening , Herr Delmer," and that was my ticket of admission.

Göring made his report to Hitler, while Göbbels and I stood at their side listening avidly.

"Without a doubt this is the work of the Communists, Herr Chancellor," Göring 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?" Göbbels asked excitedly.

Göring turned to face him. "We don't know yet," he said with that thin shark's mouth of his, "but we shall squeeze it out of him, have no fear, Doctor." He said it as though he resented an implied criticism of his efficiency.

Then Hitler asked a question. "Are the other public buildings safe?"

"I have taken every possible precaution," said Göring. "I've mobilised all the police. Every public building has been given a special guard. We are ready for anything."

I am sure that he meant this seriously and was not just putting on an act. Both Hitler and Göring then still feared the possibility of a Communist coup. With six million votes at the last elections and a large number of adherents in the trade unions the Communists were still a formidable power. And they had in the past tried to capture power by coups – just as the Nazis had.

Then, Göring's report done, we set off on a tour of the building. Across pools of water, charred debris, and through clouds of evil smelling smoke we made our way across rooms and corridors. Someone opened a yellow varnished oak door, and for a moment we peeped into the blazing furnace of the debating chamber. It was like opening the door of an oven. Although the fire brigade were spraying away lustily with their hoses, the fire was roaring up into the cupola with a fury which made us shut that door again in a hurry.

Göring picked a piece of rag off the floor near one of the charred curtains. "Here, you can see for yourself Herr Chancellor how they started the fire," he said. "They hung cloths soaked in petrol over the furniture and set it alight."

Notice the 'they'. 'They' did this, 'they' did that. For Göring there was no question that more than one incendiary must have been at work. It had to be more than one to fit in with his conviction that the fire was the result of a Communist conspiracy. There had to be a gang of incendiaries. But as I looked at the rags and the other evidence, I could see nothing that one man could not have done on his own.

We came into a lobby filled with smoke. A policeman stepped out and barred the way with outstretched arms. "You must not pass here, Herr Chancellor. That candelabra may crash to the floor any moment." And he pointed up at a crystal chandelier.

In the next corridor Hitler fell back a bit and joined me. He was moved to prophesy: "God grant," he said "that this be the work of the Communists. You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning."

Just then he tripped over a hosepipe.

"You see this building," he said, recovering his balance. "You see how it is aflame" – and he swept his hand around. "If the Communists got hold of Europe and had control of it for but six months – what am I saying! – two months – the whole continent would be aflame like this building."

We climbed up some stairs to the first floor, and a moment later Herr von Papen appeared. He had come over from the Herrenklub where he had been entertaining the old President Hindenburg to dinner. Hitler was still in his trench coat, with his black soft hat on his head. Papen approached, very much the aristocrat, a beautifully cut grey tweed overcoat over his dress suit, a black-and-white scarf found his neck, his black Homburg hat in his gloved hand.

Hitler strode forward excitedly, seized Papen by the hand, and pumphandling him all the time, said in his Austrian German: "This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice-Chancellor! If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, then we must crush out this murder pest with an iron fist!"

Herr von Papen gently withdrew his hand. At that moment he really was the consummate diplomat.

"Er... Oh, yes," he said, coldly repelling Hitler's ungentlemanly fervour. "I understand that the Gobelins have escaped, and that the library most fortunately had not been touched either."

Herr von Papen had switched the whole subject from politics into the purely material realm of fire damage, insurance, pounds, shillings and pence.

Hitler was so excited he did not notice it. Or, if he did, he pretended not to. He invited the Vice-Chancellor cordially to come into Göring's office for a conference with him and Göring. "We are just about to decide on what measures should be taken next, Herr Vizekanzler. Won't you join us?"

But Papen must have known that this fire was just about the end of any restraining power he might have over Hitler, and he was not walking into the lion's den that night.

"Thank you very much, Herr Chancellor," he said "very good of you indeed, but I think I must go and report to the Fieldmarshal first."

It was a parting shot.

What he meant to say was: 'There is yet another authority to be consulted with reference to any measures that you and Göring may decide.'

As I was leaving – shortly after Papen had gone – I met all kinds of Nazis trying to get in. Prince August Wilhelm, dressed in a long Stormtroopers greatcoat, was having an argument with the police guards, who would not let him through the cordon. As I crossed the road into the Park to run back to the office to telephone my story I saw him mounting the steps of the Reichstag.

And yet it was very soon being said that Prince August Wilhelm was one of the Nazis who lit the fire!

I expected congratulations from London for this world scoop. But I did not get any.

"Is the story okay?" I asked the sub-editor over the telephone, fishing for a compliment.

"Yes," said the sub, "your story is okay, I suppose. But we don't want all this political stuff. We want more about the fire. United Press reports that there are now 15 brigades on the spot and that the dome has fallen in."

And the sub-editors cut the report and left out von Papen's brilliantly deflating answers to Hitler.

Up in Manchester however, Beaverbrook was trying out a new editor, Arthur Christiansen. Where Baxter's men in London had given my dispatch a spread over two columns Christiansen splashed it over four. Not very long after this Christiansen took over from Baxter in London.

The treatment of my scoop was, of course, only one among many reasons for this change.

In their conference Hitler and Göring decided that the 'God given signal' must be obeyed with the minimum delay. That very night, the political police under orders from Göring went into action against the Reds. Out came the list of Communist functionaries, of Communist Reichstag and Diet deputies and of Communist Trade Union leaders and Communist Municipal councillors. It had been prepared for just such an emergency years before by Weismann for his socialist boss Karl Severing. Within an hour and a half hundreds of plain clothes men, each accompanied by two constables armed with automatics, were rounding up the Communist key men and taking them off to prison. A few managed to escape. Among them a young fellow called Walter Ulbricht, who later, after the collapse of Hitler's Reich, was to become the feared and hated satrap of Soviet East Germany.

On the morning of February 28th, while the newspapers splashed banner headlines about the "Communist plot", Hitler and Papen went to see Hindenburg. Papen, after anxious debate with his Conservative friends, had as usual surrendered to Hitler. Now the two of them, dapper aristocrat Franz and wily Bohemian Adolf, presented the old President with a decree they wanted him to sign.

Hindenburg skimmed through the pages. Then he signed. What he signed was the death sentence on what there was of German democracy. For this decree suspended the civil liberties of the Weimar constitution and inaugurated the Police State. As Hitler had prophesied to me the night before, a new era for Germany had begun.

Hardly had Papen and Hitler said goodbye to each other on the steps of Hindenburg's presidential palace, when lorries loaded with Hitler Stormtroops, hastily sworn in as "auxiliary police"", began to carry out the decree. All day long I watched them at their work, swooping on the pubs and the flats where the Communist rank and file had their hideouts, and carrying away whomever they found there. Sometimes to gaols, but most often they took their captives to Stormtroop cellars of the kind in which Göbbels had watched his boys teaching atheists to pray.

Other Stormtroop police were out with squads of bill posters tearing down all Communist election posters and pasting up Nazi ones in their place. Still others were going the rounds of the newspaper sellers, confiscating the Communist newspapers. Göring had prohibited them for the next four weeks – in fact until the election.

But the Communists were not the only Germans who were being rounded up and arrested. Thousands of non-Communists too were being taken in – lawyers, doctors, actors, journalists – all of them men and women known for their pacifist or anti-Nazi views. the newly opened concentration camps began to fill up.

Hitler, however, did not proscribe the Communist Party as such – not yet. He was too shrewd for that. he postponed the outright banning of the Communist Party until after the election had been held, in the hope that the Communists would continue to split the left-wing vote, and that when he did ban the party and its elected deputies after the election, this would give him the needed two-thirds majority for the Act enabling him to dispense with the Reichstag. His plan worked perfectly. That was exactly how things went.

But while the story of the Communist plot to set the Reichstag on fire proved an enormous success in Germany and gave Hitler all the political leverage he hoped for, it was beginning prove a liability abroad. No-one outside Germany would believe that the fire was not a pup up job. The shirtless man who had been captured in the Reichstag while he was trying to spread the flames still further – a young Dutch hitch-hiker named Marinus van der Lubbe – was assumed by the world at large to be a tool of the Nazis.

The insistence of Göring and Hitler that not just van der Lubbe alone, but a whole group of people must have been at work – a theory which they had to maintain and support in order to justify their story of a Communist plot – had just the opposite effect abroad. For people accepted it as a fact that more than one pair of hands was needed to produce such a big fire, and they decided the missing hands must be Nazi hands.

On March 2nd, three days before the election was due, I called on Hitler to hear what he had to say about this not altogether unpredictable boomerang. Hitler was furious. So angry that he said things which, to my mind, were not only silly but damaging to himself.

"I could have that Communist who was caught in the Reichstag hanged from the nearest tree," he ranted. "That would dispose for ever of this vile slander that he was an agent of ours."

A fantastic piece of unrealism. For had the Nazis killed van der Lubbe before he was tried this would have been just the thing to confirm the outside world's suspicion that he was a tool of the Nazis whom they now wanted out of the way.

Hitler went on to declaim how Europe instead of accusing him of faking and framing should really be grateful to him for his courageous action against the common Bolshevik enemy.

"If Germany went Communist, as there was every danger that she might until I became Chancellor, then it would not be long before the rest of civilised Europe fell a prey to this Asiatic pest." The Reichstag fire, he said, was just one of a series of terrorist coups which he declared the police could 'prove' had been planned by the Communists. he mentioned the abortive fire in the old Imperial Palace as another of them. (Investigation later proved that this fire too had been the work of van der Lubbe.)

"We have seized material by the hundredweight in the secret cellar of the Communist party Headquarters at the Bülowplatz," said Hitler. "It proves irrefutably that these fires were intended to be the beacon signals for a nationwide campaign of dynamiting, incendiarism and mass murder. Why, these Bolshevist criminals had even made preparations to poison the water in the reservoirs!"

And then he made the inevitable 'if-you-were-in-my-shoes' comparison with Britain. "Suppose," said Hitler, "that the Communists had tried to set Buckingham Palace on fire and had actually succeeded in burning down the House of Commons. Your government would have acted just as I have acted."

I told him that the wave of arrests in Germany had caused rumours to spread both in Berlin and abroad that he was planning a great slaughter of his enemies. A kind of German St. Bartholomew's night. Again Hitler gave me an answer which could hardly help his cause.

"I need no St. Bartholomew's night," he sneered. "Under the decrees for the Defence of the People and the State" (the one signed by President Hindenburg on February 28th) "we have set up tribunals which will try enemies of the state and deal with them in a way which will put an end to conspiracies." In other words he was going to have a legal slaughter of his enemies. I asked him whether the suspension of civil liberties in Germany was to be permanent. This time his answer was more diplomatic and considerably less candid.

"No," he said. "when the Communist menace is stamped out the normal order of things shall return. Our laws were too liberal for me to be able to deal effectively and swiftly with this Bolshevik underworld. But I myself am only too anxious for the normal state of affairs to be restored as quickly as possible. First, however, we must crush Communism out of existence."

That was a very elastic promise. In fact, the civil liberties suppressed in that Reichstag Fire decree were never restored in Hitler's lifetime. Nor do I believe he ever meant to restore them. For he needed the police terror in order to discipline the German people into readiness for the great war of revenge.

What was the truth about the Reichstag fire? Who really was responsible for it? The Nazis accused the Communists and the Communists the Nazis. In the world at large the Communist allegation has been accepted without question. Even by expert historians.

But I have always believed that neither the Nazis nor the Communists laid and lit this fire, but that both exploited it for their political warfare. the Nazis did so for the immediate objective of suppressing all opposition to themselves in Germany, the Communists for the long term objective of rallying the world against the Nazis. My own view I put forward in an article on Hitler and the Reichstag fir in 1939, when I said, "I rather suspect there was really just one incendiary who lit that fire – the lunatic van der Lubbe."

Today I no longer suspect, I am sure of it.

On that night of February 27th, 1933 the shirtless youth who had been arrested in the burning Reichstag was immediately wrapped in rugs and taken off to the headquarters of the political police on the Alexanderplatz. There he was led straight to the office of the duty commissar, the then thirty-one year old Helmut Heisig. Marinus van der Lubbe underwent his first interrogation in Heisig's room. In this first and all subsequent interrogations, van der Lubbe declared that he and he alone had set the Reichstag on fire. He had done so entirely on his own initiative and without any outside help or inspiration. His object in doing so, he said, was to incite the workers of Germany to 'do something about Hitler' before it was too late. Van der Lubbe however, was no Moscow Communist. He belonged to a Dutch Marxist splinter group called the 'International Communists' or the 'Raden Communists', which was fiercely opposed to Moscow.

Again and again Heisig and his superior Dr. Zirpins questioned van der Lubbe. They checked all his statements as to where he had been and how he had spent the days before the fire, how he had come to be in Germany, how he had bought the fire lighters which he used in the Reichstag, and at what shops. Van der Lubbe answered all their questions frankly and truthfully. He drew them a map, showing the route he followed as he climbed into the Reichstag, breaking a window as he did so – he had been observed in the act – and then rushed from room to room laying a trail of fire until he ran out of firelighters and used his own shirt and coat. It all tallied. Even when Heisig and Zirpins checked him over the route with a stopwatch to see whether he could have done in the time available all that he claimed to have done. Heisig and Zirpins came to the firm conclusion that van der Lubbe was telling the truth and that he, and he alone, had lit the fire. And Heisig, who is alive as I write, still sticks to this opinion.

But this view of the detectives did not suit Göring's book or Hitler's The fire had to be the work of a gang, a Communist gang. If it was not, the whole moral foundation of their new Police State was undermined. When Heisig, who had been sent to Leiden in Holland to investigate van der Lubbe's Dutch background, gave an interview to Dutch newspapers saying that van der Lubbe was the sole culprit, Göring flew into a passionate rage and had Heisig immediately recalled.

The public prosecutor working on the case, one Dr. Vogt, aware that his career depended on his taking the same view of the facts as Hitler and Göring, refused to accept his inefficient CID officials' report. He called in fire experts like Wagner, one of Berlin's fire chiefs, who declared, "...the fire in the debating chamber could never have assumed the extent it did in such a short time... had not the chamber been specially prepared for the fire." A chemical expert named Dr. Schatz declared in an affidavit that in his opinion "probably a petrol derivate... either paraffin or motor spirit... had been used. The petrol soaked material (rags, cotton-waste or the like) must have been stowed among the chairs and desks and had petrol poured over it." But despite all these imaginative and splendidly subservient theories, the chemical experts who examined the debris had to admit: "Concerning the manner in which the debating chamber was prepared for the fire and what incendiary devices were used, the meticulously careful examination undertaken during the clearing up of the debris has given no indications. It has also not been possible to ascertain any trace that suggests inflammable liquids such as petroleum, benzine, benzol or ether had been used."

But even this negative evidence from the chemical examination of the debris did not put the Public Prosecutor off persisting with his Communist gang theory. Under the German system – which, alas, is the same today as it was then – public prosecutors and judges are employees of the State. Nominally independent, they are subject in their careers to ministerial displeasure and therefore easily influenced by higher authority. Dr. Vogt pressed on with the charge. For he now had not only van der Lubbe to accuse, but the Communist deputy Torgler, who had been the last to leave the house before the fire, and three Bulgarian agents of the Comintern, Popoff, Taneff and Dimitroff. All four had been arrested and charged with arson.

To Dr. Vogt it did not matter at all that Taneff, Popoff and Dimitroff were miles away from Berlin on the night of the fire and that Torgler too could prove his innocence. Nor did he mind that they were bound to be acquitted – as indeed they were at the subsequent trial before the Supreme Court in Leipzig. All he cared about was his career. And his career depended on his keeping the Communist plot story going to please his masters.

The Nazis had suborned their scientific experts, twisted and faked the evidence, all in order to show that van der Lubbe could not possibly have raised the fire entirely by himself – as he claimed and as the CID men who had checked his story had confirmed. The Nazis insisted that a whole gang of incendiaries must have been at work. Now the Communists joyfully took up the Nazi thesis to use it as the foundation for the accusation that the Nazis were the authors of the fire and van der Lubbe their tool.

Author in chief – of the 'Hitler, Göring and Göbbels did it' fiction – was Willy Münzenberg, the propaganda genius of the German Communist Party. He had managed to escape the German police roundup on February 28th and to flee to Paris. Willy, a dynamic little fellow full of charm and imagination, whom I was later to meet frequently in Paris, soon set up a workshop in the student quarter on the left bank. Then, with the help of a small team of collaborators he proceeded to fake up a number of stories all going to show that the Reichstag fire was a Nazi conspiracy. Every little bit of fact that came the way of the team was seized, twisted and embellished to make up the 'dossier' which was promptly published in two 'Brown Books'.

The recipe by which they worked was simple enough. For instance when Walter Gempp, the Berlin Fire chief who had personally directed the operations in the burning Reichstag, was dismissed because he had accepted extensive bribes from a fire extinguisher concern, Willy Münzenberg and his merry men immediately turned him into a brave anti-Nazi martyr. Gempp, they said, had been got rid of because he knew too much about the fire's Nazi origin, and because he had complained publicly that he had been hindered by the Nazis in his fire fighting. He had complained, they alleged, that when his firemen got into the Reichstag they found at least twenty Stormtroopers already there. A brilliant invention. I can vouch myself, that when I went round the burning building, we met only police officers, no Stormtroopers. But it was universally accepted as the truth.

On May 8th, 1933, Ernst Oberfohren, the deputy chief of the nationalist Party and a bitter opponent of his leader Hugenberg's alliance with Hitler, committed suicide out of chagrin over the way things were going in Germany. Münzenberg at once faked up a secret document which, he alleged, Oberfohren had left behind telling the inside history of the fire. It too proved wonderfully effective. My colleague of the Manchester Guardian fell for the fake and sent a long dispatch, citing it as proof of the Nazis' guilt.

My editor immediately wanted to know why I had not done the same. So I pointed out that apart from other improbabilities contained in the alleged Oberfohren document, I was particularly doubtful concerning the validity of one of the ten points it put forward as proof of the Nazi guilt. This 'point' was not in the Manchester Guardian version. But it was contained in the copy of the document I had seen.

"I think you will agree that it rather undermines the credibility of Herr Oberfohren's alleged revelations – if indeed he was their author. Listen to this!" And then I read him the passage.

"Hitler's constant companion and friend, the English journalist Delmer," it said, "telegraphed full details of the fire to his newspaper before it was discovered, and the name of van der Lubbe as being the culprit."

The Editor agreed that perhaps we had not been scooped after all.

Münzenberg and his team freely seasoned their inventions with Nazi names to give them the stamp of authenticity. Heines, the Stormtroop leader, they said had led a posse of his men into the Reichstag, through the subterranean passage connecting it with Göring's palace. There they had then poured petrol over the benches in the assembly hall. The story was believed all the world over. The fact that Heines was four hundred miles away at Gleiwitz in Silesia, when this was supposed to be happening, did not detract from it at all.

The Münzenberg team declared that the protocol drawn up by Commissary Heisig and Commissary Zirpins during their interrogation of van der Lubbe and signed by him had been destroyed because in it van der Lubbe said that he had not laid the fire in the debating chamber. 'Someone else' he was alleged to have said, 'must have done that.' He had only set fires in the restaurant and the corridors. In fact the protocol was never destroyed. It still exists today and extracts from it were recently published. In it – as I have already stated – van der Lubbe states that he was responsible for all the fires in the building and had no helpers. And he continued to protest his sole responsibility for the fire at the trial – right up to the last.

When the Nazis tried to contradict the 'Brown Book's' accusations they were too late. The world, shocked by their appalling crimes against the Jews and horrified by the lawlessness of the Stormtroops, was only too ready to believe that the fire was their work.

The legend first sponsored by Münzenberg grew and grew. After the collapse of Hitler, it became standard practice for former Nazi highups to alibi themselves with some new piece of 'evidence' proving that the Nazis fired the Reichstag. But in almost all instances they merely elaborated some point in Willy Münzenberg's ingenious myth.

Even today, when the 'Hitler, Göring and Göbbels did it' legend has been thoroughly exploded as a result of the meticulous and painstaking historical investigation done by the German writer Fritz Tobias, I fear it will still live on among the historical lumber filling the minds of most people.

But not, I hope, the minds of those who read this book.

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Der Reichstagsbrand, 1933. Fritz Tobias
Der Spiegel. Hamburg, 1959
Sefton Delmer, Trail Sinister pp. 185-200, Martin Secker & Warburg, London 1961

Denis Sefton Delmer was born in Berlin, Germany, on 24th May 1904. His father, Frederick Delmer, was an Australian lecturer in English at Berlin University and on the outbreak of the First World War was interned as an enemy alien. In 1917 Delmer and his family were allowed to go to England.

Delmer was educated at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he obtained a second class degree in German. After leaving university he worked as a freelance journalist until being recruited by the Daily Express to become head of its new Berlin Bureau. While in Germany he became friendly with Ernst Röhm and he arranged for him to become the first British journalist to interview Adolf Hitler.

In the 1932 general election Delmer travelled with Hitler on his private aircraft. He was also with Hitler when he inspected the Reichstag Fire. During this period Delmer was criticized for being a Nazi sympathizer and for a time the British government thought he was in the pay of the Nazi regime.

In 1933 Delmer was sent to France as head of the Daily Express Paris Bureau. He also covered important stories in Europe including the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of Poland by the German Army in 1939. He also reported on the German Western Offensive in 1940.

Delmer returned to England and in September 1940 he was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to organize 'Black Propaganda' broadcasts to Nazi Germany. This included Soldatensender Calais, a pseudo-German radio station established in Crowborough for the German armed forces. Delmer's propaganda stories included spreading rumours that foreign workers were sleeping with the wives of German soldiers serving overseas. When Stafford Cripps discovered what Delmer was up to he wrote to Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary: "If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why, I'd rather lose it."

After the Second World War Delmer became chief foreign affairs reporter for the Daily Express. Over the next fifteen years Delmer covered nearly every major foreign news story for the newspaper. However, rumours began to circulate that Delmer was spying for the Soviet Union.

Lord Beaverbrook sacked Delmer in 1959 and he retired to Suffolk where he wrote two volumes of autobiography, Trail Sinister (1961), Black Boomerang (1962) and several other books including Weimar Germany (1972) and The Counterfeit Spy (1973). Sefton Delmer died at Lamarsh, Suffolk, on 4th September 1979.