The Reichstag Fire - How History is Created



On February 27, 1933, only four weeks after Adolf Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany and before he had consolidated his power, the Reichstag (the German parliament building) burned. The man caught, convicted, and eventually executed by beheading for the crime (the favored method of execution in Germany at that time) was self-styled revolutionary and rabble-rouser, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch council Communist, who was caught at the scene and who proudly confessed to the crime. In the days before that he had tried to burn down an unemployment office and other buildings but had not succeeded. He thought that his arson at the Reichstag would be the spark that would cause the workers to rise up and throw off the Nazi yoke. Not surprisingly, Hitler, blaming it all on the Communist Party, used the Reichstag fire as a pretext for rounding up his hated enemies, particularly Communist leaders, and for persuading President Hindenberg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended the remaining civil liberties in Germany and set the stage for Hitler’s becoming absolute dictator. From the very day after the fire, not surprisingly, suspicions swirled that the Nazi Party was somehow involved and that van der Lubbe was a dupe.

1. No historian (or even proponents of the viewpoint that the Nazis were involved) seriously proposes that Hitler was involved. In fact, all the known contemporaneous accounts of what happened when Hitler learned of the fire suggest otherwise, given Hitler’s surprise and dismay upon learning of the news. His reaction has to be remembered in the context of the times. The Nazi Party was not yet in full control, and Hitler and his cronies had been fearing since they took power that the Communists would try to incite unrest and overthrow the fledgling goverment. They saw the Reichstag fire as the signal for the long-feared Communist revolt to begin.
2. Although, it was widely speculated among the populace that van der Lubbe was a dupe and that the Nazis may have planned the fire, more recent scholarship suggests that this was not the case. Most historians these days believe that van der Lubbe probably really did act alone. In other words, just because it was plausible to think that the Nazis were involved does not necessarily mean that they were.

Perhaps the most famous of the chroniclers of Nazi history who believed that van der Lubbe was not responsible for the fire was American journalist William Shirer, who stated bluntly in his famous book, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.” He went on to say that van der Lubbe was a “dupe of the Nazis” who had been “encouraged to try to set the Reichstag on fire” while the main job was to be “done without his knowledge” by Stormtroopers. More recent scholarship casts considerable doubt on this version, however. For example, British historian Ian Kershaw, in the endnotes of part one of his recent (and massive) biography of Hitler, "Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris", states with extensive references and documentation:

"The question of who set the Reichstag ablaze has provoked the most rancorous of disputes. The Nazi version that it was a Communist plot was widely disbelieved at the time by critical observers and was not even convincing enough to secure the conviction of the leading Communists tried at the show trial at the supreme Reich Court in Leipzig in autumn 1933. The view that the Nazis, with the most to gain, had set fire to the Reichstag themselves was immediately given wide currency among diplomats and foreign journalists, and in liberal circles in Germany…Nazi authorship, as put forward in Communist counter-propaganda, orchestrated by Willi Münzenberg in "The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag", Paris, 1933, carried the day for a long time. But the findings of Fritz Tobias in the 1960s, collected in his extensive evaluation and documentation…supported by the scholarly analysis of Hans Mommsen…that Marinus van der Lubbe acted alone, are compelling and are now widely accepted, though not by Klaus P. Fischer…The counter claims of the Luxembourg Committee…that the Nazis were indeed the perpetrators, are regarded by most experts as flawed The consequences of the Reichstag fire were, of course, always more important than the identity of whoever instigated the blaze. But the question of authorship was nevertheless of significance, since it revolved around the question of whether the Nazis were following through carefully laid plans to institute totalitarian rule or whether they were improvising reactions to events they had not expected".

Here’s what historian Richard J. Evans wrote in the endnotes of the first volume of his recent history of the Third Reich, "The Coming of the Third Reich", along with references and documentation:

"Subsequently, the Communists attempted to prove that the Nazis had been behind the arson attempt, but the authenticity of van der Lubbe’s statement and associated documentation seems beyond doubt. Moreover, numerous forgeries and falsifications have been found among the documentary evidence purporting to prove Nazi involvement…A recent attempt to suggest that the Nazis planned the fire rests on an exaggeration of similarities between earlier discussion papers on emergency powers, and the Reichstag Fire Decree…So far, the conclusion of Tobias and Mommesen that van der Lubbe acted alone has not been shaken". 

What happens after any major event is a lot of speculation without much real knowledge of what really happened. It is essentially irrelevant to the question of whether the Nazis were or were not involved. Even skeptics of official version of what happened found the the Nazis’ claim that the Communists were the arsonists at least somewhat plausible. That’s because such claims were plausible, given events leading up to the fire. Given how much the Nazis benefited from the fire, it was not at all implausible to suspect that the Nazis had planned it.

Finally, the Reichstag was burned at night, when there was no one in it. If the Nazis were involved in its burning, this would imply that even the Nazis shrank at the thought of the carnage that might have resulted from burning a government building during the day or launching some sort of other “black ops” that would cause casualties, even if casualties would strengthen their case for “drastic measures” in response.

Although we can never be 100% certain and it is impossible to rule out Nazi complicity totally, what we know today is that the Nazis probably didn’t burn down the Reichstag. Most likely, they just got very, very lucky that a zealot like van der Lubbe did it at such an opportune time for them.

ADDENDUM: A most interesting first person account by Sefton Delmer. Some interesting excerpts: 

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.

And:

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 put-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.

And:

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.

Finally:

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.

It is worth reading the whole account. It gives a plausible account of how the Nazis may well have had no one but themselves to blame for the wide acceptance of the suspicion that the Nazis had either put van der Lubbe up to the job or had used him as a dupe and done it themselves–truly ironic if true.

Sefton Delmer: The Reichstag Fire

"Adolf Hitler as dictator of Germany?" mocked the know-it-alls in February 1933, just after the Nazi agitator had taken power, "Don't make me laugh! Sure, he's been made Chancellor alright. But - ha! ha! - he is a chancellor in handcuffs. The Conservative Vice-Chancellor von Papen and his pal President von Hindenburg have Adolf so well tied up the poor fellow cannot do a thing without their okay. They've made a fool of him, ha! ha!"

Certainly that was how the Conservatives had planned things. But then in the night of 27 February something happened which gave Hitler the chance to escape from all the restraints his Deutsch-National and Junker allies were putting on him.

The ornate gilt and glass domed palace of the Reichstag, the German Parliament building, was set on fire. As it went up in flames, what little was left of civil liberty in Germany was destroyed with it. The way for Hitler to become the untrammelled Führer and Dictator was clear.

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 the petrol pump attendant at the Friedrich Strasse Station, one of the many petrol station attendants to whom I had given my card as the Berlin correspondent of the "Daily Express" with a request to telephone me if anything interesting happened in his vicinity. 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.

It was a quarter to ten when I got there - 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 few 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!'

On 27 February 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin, home to German parliament, was set ablaze. In the February 28 "New York Times", Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Frederick T. Birchall reported: "The great glass-ceilinged chamber in which parliamentary sessions are held was completely burned out, the cupola surmounting the building directly above the glass ceiling of the chamber was burned through and rendered so insecure that it appeared early this morning that it might fall at any moment."

Authorities arrested a Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe for setting the fire, as well as several others for allegedly aiding him. Birchall wrote, "Why Communists should desire to burn down the empty Reichstag building on the eve of an election their opponents declare to be unimportant in that it will not affect their retention of power is one of the mysteries of the present situation. The sole theory that seems plausible is that the perpetrators hoped that the fire would be attributed to the Nationals Socialists [Nazis] and that the odium would fall on that party."

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.

As I was scouting around, Karl Hanke, the bearded secretary of Dr. Goebbels, 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 Göbbels.

"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 so Göbbels 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 27 February 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 back spectators and ran across the road. I got to the Reichstag entrance - Portal II, it was - just as Hitler jumped out of his car and dashed up the steps two at a time, the tails of his trench coat flying, his floppy wide brimmed black artist's hat pulled down low into his face. Goebbels and Hitler's SS bodyguard were right behind him.

"Mind if I come along too?" I said to Sepp Dietrich the commandant of the bodyguard. "Try your luck." grinned Sepp. "Pop along in."

Inside the entrance stood Hermann Göring, massive in a fawn coloured camel-hair coat, his legs astride like some Frederician guardsman in a patriotic UFA film. His soft brown hat was turned up in front in what was called 'Potsdam style'. Göring's face under it was very red presumably from staring at the fire. He glared at me with distaste. I could see he was going to throw me out. But just at that moment Hitler saw me too and 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 the little club foot's question as a 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.

Göring's report done, we set off on a tour of the building. Across pools of water, past charred debris and through clouds of evil smelling acrid smoke we made our way through rooms and corridors. Someone opened a yellow varnished oak door and for a moment we peeped into the blazing inferno of the debating chamber. It was like opening the door to a furnace at a steel works. Although the firemen were spraying away at it with their hoses as hard as they could go, the fire was roaring up into the cupola with a fury and a heat which made us shut that door in a hurry. Göring picked a piece of rag from the floor near one of the charred curtains. "Here you can see for yourself, Herr Reichskanzler, how they started that fire. They hung cloths soaked in petrol over the furniture and set them alight."

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 more than one incendiary in order to justify the nation wide 'emergency' measures he and Hitler would now stampede Hindenburg into approving. But as I looked around me at the rags and the other evidence I could see nothing that one man could not have accomplished 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.'

But of course when it came to the show-down the next morning and Hitler requested him to go to see the president with him von Papen as usual surrendered. Side by side the wily Adolf Hitler and the conservative gentleman von Papen presented Hindenburg with the decree that Göring and Hitler had drawn up overnight.

Hindenburg skimmed through the pages. Then he signed. What he signed was the death sentence on what had passed for German democracy for the last twelve years. For this decree suspended the civil liberties guaranteed under the Weimar constitution and inaugurated the Police State. As Hitler had prophesied to me, a new era for Germany had begun, and, what was worse for the outside world as well.

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 28, 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 put-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 2, 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 28) "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 uppressing 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 27 February 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 28 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 8 May 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.


Fritz Tobias, "Der Reichstagsbrand", 1933.
"Der Spiegel". Hamburg, 1959
Sefton Delmer, "Trail Sinister", Martin Secker & Warburg, London 19


Now I know you are impatient to ask me two questions. You ask: how did I come to know all these Nazis so well that Hitler let me accompany him into the burning Reichstag, and secondly who do I think was responsible for setting fire to the Reichstag, the Nazis or the Communists?

I will take the second question first. My answer is: neither! The Reichstag fire was the work of one man, the young Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe a member of a small Marxist splinter group known as the RADEN COMMUNISTS. From the moment he was captured, shirtless and coatless, wrapped in rugs and taken to police headquarters, Marinus had insisted that he and he alone had set fire to the building. Helmut Heisig, the detective commissar in charge of the investigations, went over van der Lubbe's story, checking every point, and found it to be correct in every detail. Göring and his Nazis however needed more than one incendiary to justify their story of a Communist conspiracy. So without much skill they faked evidence that the fire was the work of a group of incendiaries. With much greater skill the Communists, directed by the brilliant propaganda expert Willy Münzenberg, faked up the legend that the Nazis themselves had burned the Reichstag. It was highly successful. Many eminent historians still accept it.

  

 
The Reichstag Fire Was NOT a Nazi False Flag Operation

What happened was that when the Nazis first learned of the fire, they assumed that it was carried out by the Communists and, therefore, that it would be a great piece of political propaganda to use to go after the Communists.
When they later learned that it was a lone arsonist, they decided to ignore the truth and still claim the Communists were behind the fire.
And that is the lie about the Reichstag Fire—not that it was a False Flag operation carried out by the Nazis

The answer to your other question is that I was a Foreign Correspondent in Berlin. I had decided that the big news in Germany in the next few years was going to be Hitler's fight for supreme power. I therefore went all out to get to know Hitler and his top henchmen. And I had succeeded.

In April 1931 I made the acquaintance of Major Ernst Röhm, a portly and cheerful little soldier adventurer who had just taken command of Hitler's Stormtroops. I took him out to lunch. So good was the lunch that the Stabschef, as he was called, invited me to watch him review the Berlin Stormtroops whose mutiny he had just quelled at a parade from which press and public were excluded. Only conditions I had to pretend to be one of his aides. I was so impressive as his aide - standing to attention, giving the Hitler salute, turning down the corners of my mouth in true Nazi disdain and all the rest of it! - that Röhm who had quite a sense of humour invited me to come and see him in Munich at the newly built Brown House.

"And will you get me an interview with your Führer, Herr Stabschef?" I asked him.

"That I will, Herr Delmer, that I will." He kept his word and at the end of April 1931 I had my interview with Hitler, the first of many - until Hitler in July 1934 after having Röhm shot in the famous night of the long knives expelled me from Germany because I had published a long death list of all the other people he had murdered during this same weekend of terror.

But I still remember vividly that very first talk I had with the man whose maniac obsessions were to make him plunge the world into a war in which fifty-five million human beings were destroyed and the lives of countless millions more shattered beyond repair.

Röhm showed me into Hitler's room. It was a large one, with an expensive looking Persian carpet on the floor, tall windows looking out on to the Brienner Strasse, and a small railed balcony from which the great man could address the crowds.

Hitler was in a corner talking to a bushy-browed young man with an oddly simian head whom he later introduced to me as his deputy, Rudolf Hess.

He quickly got up, strode over to me, and came to a military looking halt about four feet from me. He clicked the heels of his shiny black patent leather shoes, gave me the Hitler salute with half bent arm, and stared into my eyes. He stared into them with that concentrated 'I-can-see-right-through-you' expression customarily used by hypnotists and police interrogators.

I suppose I should have felt flattered. For here I was being given the ocular baptism which Germans who had been exposed to it called 'the supreme ecstasy' (Glücksschauer) of their lives.

Röhm, a merry down to earth soldier, always a little inclined to mock the messianic poses of his chief, watched me with twinkling eyes to see whether 'the treatment' would take with reporter Delmer. It did not.

Then the little Stabschef formally presented me and he and Hess bowed out while Hitler led me over to a highly polished mahogany table by the window and we sat down.

Germans, anxious for a national alibi, have asked me, "Did Hitler impress you as a criminal or a maniac?" He did not. The appalling truth, I am ashamed to confess, is that the very first impression he made on me was that of a rather ordinary, average sort of fellow.

His double breasted blue suit (rather better quality than the one I had seen him wearing when he was speaking in the Berlin Sports Palace a few months earlier, he sweated the blue dye of that one out on to his collar as he spoke), the little 'officer's' moustache and the stiff, stilted walk, all made him look the typical German ex-service man who still felt uncomfortable in civvies. He reminded me of the many ex-soldier travelling salesmen I had met in railway compartments on my journeys across Germany. He behaved like one too.

Almost before I could get in a question Hitler had launched into an emotional denunciation of the French as being responsible for all the 'undeserved persecution' the Germans had suffered since 1918.

That was typical of my German railway carriage acquaintances. The moment they discovered I was English, they would start telling me how much they admired the British and how they loathed the French. Just for fun I sometimes talked German with a strong French accent. Whereupon their admiration and loathing were reversed. It was almost as though there was some secret propaganda directive ordering then to try and split the Entente.

But I will say this. None of these railway carriage politicians ever talked with the fervour, the pregnant volubility and the dogmatic concentration of Hitler.

There were many subsequent occasions on which I talked with Hitler after this first conversation. But every time the same thing happened. I would put a question. He would reply and his reply would swell out into an oration as more and more ideas, more and more images flowed into his imaginative and highly articulate mind. Before anyone could pull him up he would be declaiming as though he had a mass audience before him not just a solitary reporter.

But I did on this occasion manage to switch him off the subject of French iniquity on to that of his vision of a British-German alliance. I will not bore you with the details of the long harangue into which he launched. But there it all was: the blood ties between the great Nordic nations Britain and Germany and the enormous advantage it would be for Britain, as the world's foremost seapower, to have the friendship and help of Germany which would inevitably once more become the greatest land power. How Britain could then dedicate herself entirely to her imperial and colonial tasks without having to bother about the continent of Europe. Germany would keep order there, a Germany entirely devoted to the British master race for which he and his party comrades had nothing but admiration.

It was the same split the Entente theme which Hitler in varying forms was to go on reiterating right up to the moment in May 1941 when Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland in a desperate last attempt to sell it to us on the eve of Hitler's invasion of Russia in the hope of thus saving Germany from a two front war.

I asked Hitler what specifically he expected of Britain under the pact he proposed. But out of all the eloquence I extracted only two concrete demands. Firstly, that Britain should secure for Germany the cancellation of her Reparations debt and the military limitations of the Treaty of Versailles. Secondly, that we should give Germany what he called a free hand in the East..."

I pressed him to define this vague phrase a little more closely. But all he would say was that he wanted the Polish corridor to be returned to Germany, and with it the free city of Danzig.

"I do not demand the restoration of our 1914 frontiers. I do not ask for the return of Alsace-Lorraine. Nor do I demand the return of Germany's lost colonies. What I do however demand is that Germany shall no longer be treated as an inferior nation, as a pariah without rights. And I demand that the surplus millions of our people shall be given the right to expand into the empty spaces on our eastern frontiers." But when I asked him whether this meant he wanted to liquidate Poland (an old dream of Reichswehr chief von Seeckt who as long ago as 1922 had concluded a secret pact with the Red Army for this purpose) he diplomatically denied it. But undiplomatically he added "Our people must be allowed to exploit the resources now being mismanaged under Bolshevik misrule." "But how can you get into Russia without violating Polish territory?" I asked.

Hitler dodged that one. "A way can be found for everything!" was all he would say.

I don't know whether he had trodden on a secret buzzer under the carpet to warn his secretaries that he had had enough of my questions. (Persons I interview have been known to do that!) But just as I was going to press for amplification of this oracular reply Prince August Wilhelm, the Kaiser's second son burst dramatically into the room.

"Here, my Führer, are the latest figures" he announced with his right hand thrust forward in the Hitler salute, his bulbous hyperthyroid eyes fixed on his Führer with an expression of do or die devotion. With his left he produced a sheet of paper.

"These are the latest casualty figures," he said. "They bring the number of Stormtoopers wounded and killed in clashes with the Marxists during the first four months of this year up to two thousand four hundred." He paused dramatically. "Mein Führer, this is civil war!"

But Hitler did not want any competition in rhetorical dramatics. He brushed the prince aside. "Yes," he said offhandedly "You are right. Undoubtedly this is civil war!"

Then he turned Auwi's attention to me. "Your Imperial Highness. Allow me to present Mister Sefton Delmer... Mr. Delmer let me introduce our party expert on the civil war casualties, and one of our best political speakers, Prince August Wilhelm."

"I am enchanted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Delmer" lisped Queen Victoria's Nazi great-grandson in English. "I hope you are enjoying your stay in Munich. Are you staying long...?"

Hitler broke in, impatient of this vapid small talk in a language he could not understand.

"You should go and hear the prince, Mr. Delmer. He is speaking tonight at our party rally in the Circus Krone."

And with that, my first encounter with Adolf Hitler was over. There were many more to come.

What on earth was it that Germans saw in Hitler? His history showed him to have been a social misfit. His inhibited manner suggested that he himself still felt one. So what was the secret of his attraction for them?

I asked myself that question after this my first face to face meeting with him. And I went on asking it when later I joined his election circus and flew around Germany with him to report his election campaign. I watched him at his meetings, listened to his speeches, observed the reactions of his audiences. I ate at his table, studied the behaviour of his associates towards him and his towards them. In private he seemed as cold as an empty hot water bottle.

When we ate together he demonstrated that he was set apart from all the others by eating a special diet of mixed vegetables covered in a thick white sauce. It was served to him alone. The others ate and drank normally. There was no conversation to speak of.

He either kept silent or delivered a monologue. I doubt whether he had one single real friend among the little group accompanying him though they never ceased protesting their loyalty and affection for him and fighting for his favour. Only one of them he addressed by the familiar 'Du'. That was Ernst Röhm and him - as I have said - he framed and murdered when in 1934 the generals and admirals demanded Röhm's removal as the price of their continued support for Hitler.

Only twice in all the times that I was with him can I remember him laughing or making even the semblance of a joke. The first occasion was when I asked him whether it was true, as his publicity officer had claimed, that he had won the Iron Cross first class for capturing fifteen British Tommies single-handed.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" laughed Hitler "Ho! Ho! Ho! Those prisoners of mine weren't Tommies. I know you can't bluff Englishmen like that. They were Frenchies! Ha! Ha! Hal" Good old splitting-the-Entente stuff again. But he was in high good humour telling me the story.

The other was when I called on him the day after he had become chancellor. What's it feel like being the chancellor, Herr Chancellor?" I asked him a little facetiously. He gave me quite a human boyish kind of grin.

"Do you know Mr. Delmer," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "there is nothing to this business of governing! Nothing at all. It is all done for you," and he smiled slyly at Dr. Lammers, his civil servant chef de cabinet. "You simply sign your name to what is put before you, and that is that!"

In the cabin of his Lufthansa charter aircraft he would sit gazing out of the window in morose apathy as he flew from meeting to meeting. The others tried to catch his attention - Prince August Wilhelm with the morning paper headlines boosting his speech of the night before, Göbbels with a spicy bit of gossip at which he himself cackled inordinately, the muscles of his face almost as taut as the snap brim hats he liked to wear. But Hitler just sat there sunk into himself taking no notice of anyone.

The moment however that the aircraft touched the ground and rolled to a halt Hitler threw himself into his Hero-Führer posture - the posture he had copied from his former mentor and master, General Erich Ludendorff. There he stood at the top of the steps bareheaded and unsmiling, his shoulders squared back, his mouth set in grim martial resolution, his arm upraised to the salute.

Then as the roars of the welcoming crowd swelled he went over to phase two of his act.

His eyes widened to show their whites and a 'light' came into them. The light in the eyes of a Messiah predestined to lead defeated Germany to its deserved place in the sun.

Hitler did his act perfectly. All the more so because of that semi-military trench coat he usually wore on these occasions. It gave the new Messiah of Pan—Teutonism just the right twentieth century touch of the common man, the demobbed ex-officer, the Bulldog Drummond incarnation of Siegfried, the light god.

This, I decided, was it - the answer to the puzzle. This was what the Germans wanted him for. He was offering this illusion hungry people the miracle man it had longed for, the man who would lead it to world domination, whom it could worship and before whom it could creep as it had crept before its warlords and the Kaiser.

Hitler himself, like other evangelists before and after him, lived on the emotion and mass hysteria he produced in his audiences sucking it into himself as he orated, then spewing it out again at them with compound interest.

I am sure he was fully aware of this faculty of his and applied it quite deliberately. Once when I was sitting in a curtained railway compartment with him in Coblentz station - he was explaining to me as we waited for the train to go on to Trier what he would do if on his coming to power a run set in on the Reichsmark - his adjutant came in to tell Hitler that two girls had run all the way from the stadium, where he had just spoken, to do him homage.

Hitler got up and stepped out into the corridor. Discreetly I stayed where I was. But I could hear the sobbing and the slobbering in the corridor as the 'Hitler Maiden', weeping with happiness, knelt and kissed their Führer's hands and his boots.

Then Hitler came back into the compartment. Without so much as a glance at me he strode over to the window, pulled aside the curtains, and pushed it down. Then in his accustomed Führer Lightgod posture he gazed at the people on the platform, his shining eyes sweeping them in an arc from left to right like the beacon beam of a lighthouse. He was pouring out into them the emotional inspiration he had just taken in from the girls.

Half a minute later with the Sieg Heils still thundering from the platform he methodically shut the window, drew the curtains, sat down, and resumed his discourse at the exact point at which he had broken off.

But - and this is what impressed me - he showed not the slightest sign of emotion. He was completely cold and didactic once more. Yes, he could turn it on, and he could turn it off - as he wanted.

He took an immense amount of trouble over his 'image' - as much as any publicity conscious film star. When he saw that I was filming him with my Cine Kodak in his airplane he refused the sandwiches he was offered by his valet-adjutant Schaub. He even turned down the chocolates Prince August Wilhelm knowing his Führer's sweet tooth had specially brought along.

Why? Because he thought it would be hurtful to his image if the German public saw their leader munching a chocolate. The others in the group however were not so squeamish. To this day I have a splendid picture of Göbbels, the propaganda dwarf, biting into a hard-boiled egg.

Hitler refused too to be photographed in bathing dress. Well, yes, I sympathise with him there. His physique might have been a little disappointing to his admirers.

Nor would he allow his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann to publish a picture of him playing with a little black Boston Terrier.

"I cannot afford to be seen with a little Köter like that," he laid down. "In my position the only dog with adequate dignity is a German Shepherd Dog!" But despite all this care for his image I saw him several times cutting a figure which would have been far from helpful to him had an enterprising photographer caught him.

As for instance that occasion when I accompanied him and Italy's ambassador Cerutti and his beautiful Hungarian wife to a concert of the pianist Wilhelm Backhaus.

Hitler in white tie and tails - evening dress always made him look like the ringmaster of a circus - sat in the front row. Someone had told him that the best way to savour a great pianist like Backhaus was to cup your hand to your ear. And Hitler sat there throughout the performance with his hand to his ear like the second monkey of the famous 'See no evil', 'Hear no evil', 'Speak no evil' trio.

As I see it, Hitler's personal tragedy and through him that of his country was that he came to believe in his act. He accepted as truth his own skilfully built propaganda myth that he was the miraculously infallible Führer Lightgod.

When the debacle finally came he still believed it.

"The Germans do not deserve to survive" he said. "They are a weakling people. They let me down."

Denis Sefton Delmer was born in Berlin, Germany, on 24 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.

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

The Reichstag fire (German: Reichstagsbrand) was an arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin on 27 February 1933. Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch council communist was arrested for the crime. Van der Lubbe, an unemployed bricklayer who had recently arrived in Germany, was caught at the scene of the fire. He declared that he had started the fire and was later sentenced to death. The fire was used as evidence by the Nazis that the Communists were plotting against the German government and the event is seen as pivotal in the establishment of Nazi Germany.

The fire started in the Session Chamber of the Reichstag building, the assembly location of the German Parliament. A Berlin fire station received an alarm call that the building was on fire at 21:25. By the time the police and firemen arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies was engulfed in flames. The police conducted a thorough search inside the building and found Marinus van der Lubbe. Van der Lubbe and four Communist leaders were subsequently arrested.

Adolf Hitler, who was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany four weeks before, on 30 January, urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to suspend civil liberties in order to counter the "ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of Germany". After passing the decree, the government instituted mass arrests of Communists, including all of the Communist parliamentary delegates. With their bitter rival Communists gone and their seats empty, the National Socialist German Workers Party went from being a plurality party to the majority; which enabled Hitler to consolidate his power with the Nazis eager to uncover Comintern complicity.

In February 1933, three men were arrested who were to play pivotal roles during the Leipzig Trial, known also as the "Reichstag Fire Trial": Bulgarians Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev and Blagoi Popov. The Bulgarians were known to the Prussian police as senior Comintern operatives, but the police had no idea how senior they were: Dimitrov was head of all Comintern operations in Western Europe.

The responsibility for the Reichstag fire remains an ongoing topic of debate and research but historians disagree as to whether Van der Lubbe acted alone, as he said, to protest the condition of the German working class. The Nazis accused the international Communists for the act. Some historians suggest that the Communist Party's counter-accusation was correct: that the arson was planned and ordered by the Nazis, as a false flag operation. Whether the fire was indeed set by van der Lubbe, the Nazis used the fire to solidify their power and eliminate the communists as political rivals.

Prelude

Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor and head of the coalition government on 30 January 1933. As Chancellor, Hitler asked German President Paul von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call for a new parliamentary election. The date set for the elections was 5 March 1933. Hitler's aim was first to acquire a National Socialist majority, to secure his position and remove the communist opposition. If prompted or desired, the President could remove the Chancellor. Hitler hoped to abolish democracy in a more or less legal fashion, by passing the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was a special law which gave the Chancellor the power to pass laws by decree, without the involvement of the Reichstag. These special powers would remain in effect for four years, after which time they were eligible to be renewed. Under the Weimar Constitution, the President could rule by decree in times of emergency using Article 48. The unprecedented element of the Enabling Act, was that the Chancellor possessed the powers. An Enabling Act was only supposed to be passed in times of extreme emergency and had only been used once, in 1923–24 when the government used an Enabling Act to end hyperinflation. To pass an Enabling Act, a party required a vote by a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. In January 1933, the Nazis had only 32% of the seats.

During the election campaign, the Nazis alleged that Germany was on the verge of a Communist revolution and that the only way to stop the Communists was to pass the Enabling Act. The message of the campaign was simple: increase the number of Nazi seats so that the Enabling Act could be passed. To decrease the number of opposition members of parliament who could vote against the Enabling Act, Hitler planned to ban the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (the Communist Party of Germany or KPD), which at the time held 17% of the seats, after the elections and before the new Reichstag convened.

The fire

Shortly after 21:00 on 27 February 1933, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag was on fire. Despite the best efforts of the firemen, most of the building was gutted by the blaze. By 23:30, the fire was put out. The firemen and police inspected the ruins and found twenty bundles of inflammable material (firelighters) unburned lying about. At the time the fire was reported, Adolf Hitler was having dinner with Josef Göbbels at Göbbels' apartment in Berlin. When Göbbels received an urgent phone call informing him of the fire, he regarded it as a "tall tale" at first and hung up. Only after the second call did he report the news to Hitler. Both left Göbbels' apartment and arrived by car at the Reichstag, just as the fire was being put out. They were met at the site by Hermann Göring who told Hitler, "This is Communist outrage! One of the Communist culprits has been arrested". Hitler called the fire a "sign from God" and claimed it was a signal meant to mark the beginning of a Communist Putsch (revolt). The next day, the "Preussische Pressedienst" (Prussian Press Service) reported that "this act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany".

Political consequences

"These sub-humans do not understand how the people stand at our side. In their mouse-holes, out of which they now want to come, of course they hear nothing of the cheering of the masses".

— Adolf Hitler speaking about the Marxists during the Reichstag fire to Rudolf Diels

The day after the fire Hitler asked for and received from President Hindenburg the Reichstag Fire Decree, signed into law by Hindenburg using Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil liberties in Germany and was used by the Nazis to ban publications not considered "friendly" to the Nazi cause. Despite the fact that Marinus van der Lubbe claimed to have acted alone in the Reichstag fire, Hitler, after having obtained his emergency powers, announced that it was the start of a Communist plot to take over Germany. Nazi newspapers blared this "news".

This sent the Germans into a panic and isolated the Communists further among the civilians; additionally, thousands of Communists were imprisoned in the days following the fire (including leaders of the Communist Party of Germany) on the charge that the Party was preparing to stage a Putsch. With Communist electoral participation also suppressed (the Communists previously polled 17% of the vote), the Nazis were able to increase their share of the vote in the 5 March 1933, Reichstag elections from 33% to 44%. This gave the Nazis and their allies, the German National People's Party (who won 8% of the vote), a majority of 52% in the Reichstag.

W
hile the Nazis emerged with a majority, they fell short of their goal, which was to win 50%–55% of the vote that year. The Nazis thought that this would make it difficult to achieve their next goal, which was to pass the Enabling Act, a measure that required a two-thirds majority. However, there were important factors weighing in the Nazis' favor. These were: the continued suppression of the Communist Party and the Nazis' ability to capitalize on national security concerns. Moreover, some deputies of the Social Democratic Party (the only party that would vote against the Enabling Act) were prevented from taking their seats in the Reichstag, due to arrests and intimidation by the Nazi SA. As a result, the Social Democratic Party would be under-represented in the final vote tally. The Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the right to rule by decree, passed easily on 23 March 1933. It garnered the support of the right-wing German National People's Party, the Catholic Centre Party, and several fragmented middle-class parties. This measure went into force on 27 March and, in effect, made Hitler dictator of Germany.

The Kroll Opera House, sitting across the Königsplatz from the burned-out Reichstag building, functioned as the Reichstag's venue for the remaining twelve years of the Third Reich's existence.

Reichstag fire trial

In July 1933, Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov, and Vasil Tanev were indicted on charges of setting the Reichstag on fire. From 21 September to 23 December 1933, the Leipzig Trial took place and was presided over by judges from the old German Imperial High Court, the Reichsgericht. This was Germany's highest court. The presiding judge was Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bürger of the Fourth Criminal Court of the Fourth Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court. The accused were charged with arson and with attempting to overthrow the government.

The Leipzig Trial was widely publicized and was broadcast on the radio. It was expected that the court would find the Communists guilty on all counts and approve the repression and terror exercised by the Nazis against all opposition forces in the country. At the end of the trial, however, only van der Lubbe was convicted, while his fellow defendants were found not guilty. In 1934, van der Lubbe was beheaded in a German prison yard. In 1967, a court in West Berlin overturned the 1933 verdict, and posthumously changed van der Lubbe's sentence to 8 years in prison. In 1980, another court overturned the verdict, but was overruled. In 1981, a West German court posthumously overturned van der Lubbe's 1933 conviction and found him not guilty by reason of insanity. This ruling was subsequently overturned. However, in January 2008, he was pardoned under a 1998 law for the crime on the grounds that anyone convicted under Nazi Germany is officially not guilty. The law allows pardons for people convicted of crimes under the Nazis, based on the idea that the laws of Nazi Germany "went against the basic ideas of justice".

The trial began at 8:45 on the morning of 21 September, with van der Lubbe testifying. Van der Lubbe's testimony was very hard to follow as he spoke of losing his sight in one eye and wandering around Europe as a drifter and that he had been a member of the Dutch Communist Party, which he quit in 1931, but still considered himself a communist. Georgi Dimitrov began his testimony on the third day of the trial. He gave up his right to a court-appointed lawyer and defended himself successfully. When warned by Judge Bürger to behave himself in court, Dimitrov stated: "Herr President, if you were a man as innocent as myself and you had passed seven months in prison, five of them in chains night and day, you would understand it if one perhaps becomes a little strained." During the course of his defence, Dimitrov claimed that the organizers of the fire were senior members of the Nazi Party and frequently verbally clashed with Göring at the trial. The highpoint of the trial occurred on 4 November 1933, when Göring took the stand and was cross-examined by Dimitrov. The following exchange took place:

Dimitrov: Herr Prime Minister Göring stated on February 28 that, when arrested, the "Dutch Communist van der Lubbe had on his person his passport and a membership card of the Communist Party". From whom was this information taken?

Göring: The police search all common criminals, and report the result to me.

Dimitrov: The three officials who arrested and examined van der Lubbe all agreed that no membership card of the Communist Party was found on him. I should like to know where the report that such a card had been found came from.

Göring: I was told by an official. Things which were reported to me on the night of the fire...could not be tested or proven. The report was made to me by a responsible official, and was accepted as a fact, and as it could not be tested immediately it was announced as a fact. When I issued the first report to the press on the morning after the fire the interrogation of van der Lubbe had not been concluded. In any case I do not see that anyone has any right to complain because it seems proved in this trial that van der Lubbe had no such card on him.

Dimitrov: I would like to ask the Minister of the Interior what steps he took to make sure that van der Lubbe's route to Hennigsdorf, his stay and his meetings with other people there were investigated by the police to assist them in tracking down Van der Lubbe's accomplices?

Göring: As I am not an official myself, but a responsible Minister it was not important that I should trouble myself with such petty, minor matters. It was my task to expose the Party, and the mentality, which was responsible for the crime.

Dimitrov: Is the Reichsminister aware of the fact that those that possess this alleged criminal mentality today control the destiny of a sixth part of the world – the Soviet Union?

Göring: I don't care what happens in Russia! I know that the Russians pay with bills, and I should prefer to know that their bills are paid! I care about the Communist Party here in Germany and about Communist crooks who come here to set the Reichstag on fire!

Dimitrov: This criminal mentality rules the Soviet Union, the greatest and best country in the world. Is Herr Prime Minister aware of that?

Göring: I shall tell you what the German people already know. They know that you are behaving in a disgraceful manner! They know that you are a Communist crook who came to Germany to set the Reichstag on fire! In my eyes you are nothing, but a scoundrel, a crook who belongs on the gallows!".

In his verdict, Judge Bürger was careful to underline his belief that there had in fact been a Communist conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag, but declared, with the exception of van der Lubbe, there was insufficient evidence to connect the accused to the fire or the alleged conspiracy. Only van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. The rest were acquitted and were expelled to the Soviet Union, where they received a heroic welcome. The one exception was Torgler, who was taken into "protective custody" by the police until 1935. After being released, he assumed a pseudonym and moved away from Berlin.

Hitler was furious with the outcome of this trial. He decreed that henceforth treason—among many other offenses—would only be tried by a newly established People's Court (Volksgerichtshof). The People's Court later became associated with the number of death sentences it handed down, including those following the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler which were presided over by then Judge-President Roland Freisler.

Execution of van der Lubbe

At his trial, van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded by guillotine (the customary form of execution in Saxony at the time; it was by axe in the rest of Germany) on 10 January 1934, three days before his 25th birthday. The Nazis alleged that van der Lubbe was part of the Communist conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag and seize power, while the Communists alleged that van der Lubbe was part of the Nazi conspiracy to blame the crime on them. Van der Lubbe, for his part, maintained that he acted alone to protest the condition of the German working class.

Dragged before Nazi 'justice', van der Lubbe denied having had contacts with the KPD, the 'councilist' milieu in Berlin. He was condemned to death (23 December 1933) and decapitated on 10 January 1934, one of the first victims of Nazi terror. For his friends, this execution was the logical continuation of the bourgeois terror which struck down so many workers under governments from Ebert to Hitler. But the worst for van der Lubbe was to be dragged in the mud by the Stalinists, who accused him of being in the service of Nazism and began a great campaign of slander.   

The Stalinists were his executioners every bit as much as the Nazis, and had no hesitation in demanding his death. Dimitrov (Van der Lubbe's supposed accomplice), who was to be acquitted and become one of the principal leaders of the stalinised Comintern, even demanded in open court that van der Lubbe should be "condemned to death for having worked against the proletariat" (L'Humanité, organ of the French CP, 17 December 1933).

- Philippe Bourrinet

Dispute about van der Lubbe's role in the Reichstag fire

According to Ian Kershaw, writing in 1998, the consensus of nearly all historians is that van der Lubbe did set the Reichstag on fire. Although Van der Lubbe was certainly an arsonist and clearly played a role, there has been considerable popular and scientific debate over whether he acted alone; the case is still discussed.

Considering the speed with which the fire engulfed the building, van der Lubbe's reputation as a mentally disturbed arsonist hungry for fame, and cryptic comments by leading Nazi officials, it was generally believed at the time that the Nazi hierarchy was involved for political gain. Kershaw, in "Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris", says it is generally believed today that van der Lubbe acted alone and that the Reichstag fire was merely a stroke of good luck for the Nazis. It is alleged that the idea he was a "half-wit" or "mentally disturbed" was propaganda spread by the Dutch Communist Party, to distance themselves from an insurrectionist anti-fascist, who was once a member of the party and took action where they failed to do so. Hans Mommsen concluded that the Nazi leadership was in a state of panic on the night of the Reichstag fire and they seemed to regard the fire as confirmation that a Communist revolution was as imminent as they said it was.

British reporter Sefton Delmer witnessed the events of that night and his account of the fire provides a number of details. Delmer reports Hitler arriving at the Reichstag and appearing uncertain how it began and concerned that a Communist coup was about to be launched. Delmer viewed van der Lubbe as being solely responsible but that the Nazis sought to make it appear to be a "Communist gang" who set the fire, whereas the Communists sought to make it appear that van der Lubbe was working for the Nazis, each side constructing a plot-theory in which the other was the villain.

In private, Hitler said of the chairman of the Communist Party, Ernst Torgler: "I'm convinced he was responsible for the burning of the Reichstag, but I can't prove it".

In 1960, Fritz Tobias, a West German SPD public servant and part-time historian, published a series of articles in "Der Spiegel", later turned into a book, in which he argued that van der Lubbe acted alone. Tobias was widely attacked for his articles, which showed that van der Lubbe was a pyromaniac, with a long history of burning down buildings or attempting to burn down buildings. Tobias established that van der Lubbe attempted to burn down several buildings in the days prior to 27 February. In March 1973, the Swiss historian Walther Hofer organized a conference intended to rebut the claims made by Tobias. At the conference, Hofer claimed to have found evidence that some of the detectives who investigated the fire had been Nazis. Mommsen commented on Hofer's claims by stating, "Professor Hofer's rather helpless statement that the accomplices of van der Lubbe 'could only have been Nazis' is tacit admission that the committee did not actually obtain any positive evidence in regard to the alleged accomplices' identity." Mommsen also had a counter-study supporting Hofer, which was suppressed for political reasons—an act that he admits was a serious breach of ethics.

The debate over who set the fire continues and may never be solved to everyone's satisfaction. Despite attempts to support the case against van der Lubbe, who was tried and executed for the crime, a great deal of evidence collected and analyzed by Walther Hofer of Bern points in the direction of a SA/SS Sondergruppe headed by Reinhard Heydrich and an official of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, Kurt Dalüge.

In 1946, Hans Gisevius a former member of the Gestapo, indicated that the Nazis were the arsonists. Karl Ernst by order of possibly Göbbels, collected a commando of SA men headed by Heini Gewehr, who set the fire. Among them was a criminal named Rall, who later made a (suppressed) confession before he was murdered by the Gestapo. Almost all participants were murdered in the Night of the Long Knives; Gewehr later died in the war. New work by Alexander Bahar and Wilfried Kugel has revived the theory that the Nazis were behind the fire. It uses Gestapo archives held in Moscow and available to researchers only since 1990. They argue that the fire was almost certainly started by the Nazis, based on the wealth of circumstantial evidence provided by the archival material. They say that a commando group of at least three and at most ten SA men led by Hans Georg Gewehr, set the fire using self-lighting incendiaries and that van der Lubbe was brought to the scene later. "Der Spiegel" published a 10-page response to the book, arguing that the thesis that van der Lubbe acted alone remains the most likely explanation. The 2014 study of  Benjamin Carter Hett rejects the possibility of a single perpetrator, van der Lubbe, as he had neither time nor appropriate resources for a successful arson.

Göring's commentary

In "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" William L. Shirer wrote that at Nuremberg, General Franz Halder stated in an affidavit, that Hermann Göring boasted about setting the fire:

"On the occasion of a lunch on the Führer's birthday in 1943, the people around the Führer turned the conversation to the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears how Göring broke into the conversation and shouted: 'The only one who really knows about the Reichstag building is I, for I set fire to it.' And saying this he slapped his thigh."

If this is true it may have been done by the ever vain Göring to impress Hitler. Martin Sommerfeldt, who worked in the Ministry of the Interior in Berlin, believed it was carried out by men of the SA on the orders of Göbbels to boost the party’s election chances in March 1933. Men from the SS then killed the SA men involved to ensure that no witnesses survived. Sommerfeldt claimed that his story was backed by Berlin Gestapo chief, Rudolf Diels who even knew where the bodies were.  

Under cross-examination at the Nuremberg trial in 1945/6, Göring was read Halder's affidavit and denied he had any involvement in the fire, characterizing Halder's statement as "utter nonsense".

Mr. Justice Jackson: Well, he had begun to make statements, had he not, and you were generally being accused of burning the Reichstag building? You knew that, did you not? That was the ...

Göring: That accusation that I had set fire to the Reichstag came from a certain foreign press. That could not bother me because it was not consistent with the facts. I had no reason or motive for setting fire to the Reichstag. From the artistic point of view I did not at all regret that the assembly chamber was burned; I hoped to build a better one. But I did regret very much that I was forced to find a new meeting place for the Reichstag and, not being able to find one, I had to give up my Kroll Opera House, that is, the second State Opera House, for that purpose. The opera seemed to me much more important than the Reichstag.

Mr. Justice Jackson: Have you ever boasted of burning the Reichstag building, even by way of joking?

Göring: No. I made a joke, if that is the one you are referring to, when I said that, after this, I should be competing with Nero and that probably people would soon be saying that, dressed in a red toga and holding a lyre in my hand, I looked on at the fire and played while the Reichstag was burning. That was the joke. But the fact was that I almost perished in the flames, which would have been very unfortunate for the German people, but very fortunate for their enemies.

Mr. Justice Jackson: You never stated then that you burned the Reichstag?

Göring: No. I know that Herr Rauschning said in the book that he wrote, and which has often been referred to here, that I had discussed this with him. I saw Herr Rauschning only twice in my life and only for a short time on each occasion. If I had set fire to the Reichstag, I would presumably have let that be known only to my closest circle of confidants, if at all. I would not have told it to a man whom I did not know and whose appearance I could not describe at all today. That is an absolute distortion of the truth.

Rauschning's Phony 'Conversations With Hitler'
By Mark Weber

One of the most widely quoted sources of information about Hitler's personality and secret intentions is the supposed memoir of Hermann Rauschning, the National Socialist President of the Danzig Senate in 1933-1934 who was ousted from the Hitler movement a short time later and then made a new life for himself as a professional anti-Nazi.

In the book known in German as "Conversations with Hitler" (Gespräche mit Hitler) and first published in the U.S. in 1940 as The Voice of Destruction, Rauschning presents page after page of what are purported to be Hitler's most intimate views and plans for the future, allegedly based on dozens of private conversations between 1932 and 1934. After the war the memoir was introduced as Allied prosecution exhibit USSR-378 at the main Nuremberg "war crimes" trial.

Among the damning quotations attributed to Hitler by Rauschning are these memorable statements:

"We must be brutal. We must regain a clear conscience about brutality. Only then can we drive out the tenderness from our people ... Do I propose to exterminate entire nationalities? Yes, it will add up to that ... I naturally have the right to destroy millions of men of inferior races who increase like vermin ... Yes, we are barbarians. We want to be barbarians. It is an honorable title".

Hitler is also supposed to have confided to Rauschning, an almost unknown provincial official, fantastic plans for a German world empire that would include Africa, South America, Mexico and, eventually, the United States.

Many prestigious historians, inculding Leon Poliakov, Gerhard Weinberg, Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Nora Levin and Robert Payne, used choice quotations from Rauschning's memoir in their works of history. Poliakov, one of the most prominent Holocaust writers, specifically praised Rauschning for his "exceptional accuracy", while Levin, another widely-read Holocaust historian, called him "one of the most penetrating analysts of the Nazi period."

But not everyone has been so credulous. Swiss historian Wolfgang Haenel spent five years diligently investigating the memoir before announcing his findings in 1983 at a revisionist history conference in West Germany. The renowned Conversations with Hitler, he declared are a total fraud. The book has no value "except as a document of Allied war propaganda."

Haenel was able to conclusively establish that Rausching's claim to have met with Hitler "more than a hundred times is a lie. The two actually met only four times, and never alone. The words attributed to Hitler, he showed, were simply invented or lifted from many different sources, including writings by Juenger and Friedrich Nietzsche. An account of Hitler hearing voices, waking at night with convulsive shrieks and pointing in terror at an empty corner while shouting "There, there, in the corner!" was taken from a short story by French writer Guy de Maupassant.

The phony memoir was designed to incite public opinion in democratic countries, especially in the United States, in favor of war against Germany. The project was the brainchild of the Hungarian-born journalist Emery Reves, who ran an influential anti-German press and propaganda agency in Paris during the 1930s. Haenel has also found evidence that a prominent British journalist named Henry Wickham-Steele helped to produce the memoir. Wickham-Steele was a right-hand man of Sir Robert Vansittart, perhaps the most vehemently anti-German figure in Britain.

Recently, West Germany's most influential weekly periodicals, "Die Zeit", and "Der Spiegel" (7 September 1985), have run lengthy articles about historical hoax. "Der Spiegel" concluded that Rauschning's "Conversations with Hitler" "are a falsification, an historical distortion from the first to the last page... Haenel not only proves the falsification, he also shows how the impressive surrogate was quickly compiled and which ingredients were mixed together."

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the story of this sordid hoax, which took more than 40 years to finally unmask: It shows that even the most brazen historical fraud can have a tremendous impact if it serves important interests, that it's easier to invent a great historical lie than to expose one and finally, that everyone should be extremely wary of even the "authoritative" portrayals of the emotionally-charged Hitler era.

A footnote: Readers interested in an authentic record of Hitler's personality and private views should look into the fascinating and wide-ranging memoir of Otto Wagener, published in August 1985 by Yale University Press under the title "Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant". Wagener was the first Chief of Staff of the SA ("Stormtroopers") and Director of the Economic-Political Department of the National Socialist Party. He spent hundreds of hours with Hitler between 1929 and 1932, many of them alone.

Mr. Justice Jackson: Do you remember the luncheon on Hitler's birthday in 1942 at the Kasino, the officers' mess, at the headquarters of the Führer in East Prussia?

Göring: No.


Mr. Justice Jackson: You do not remember that? I will ask that you be shown the affidavit of General Franz Halder, and I call your attention to his statements which may refresh your recollection. I read it. "On the occasion of a luncheon on the Führer's birthday in 1942, the people around the Führer turned the conversation to the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears how Göring broke into the conversation and shouted: 'The only one who really knows the Reichstag is I, for I set fire to it.' And saying this he slapped his thigh."

Göring: This conversation did not take place and I request that I be confronted with Herr Halder. First of all I want to emphasize that what is written here is utter nonsense. It says, "The only one who really knows the Reichstag is I." The Reichstag was known to every representative in the Reichstag. The fire took place only in the general assembly room, and many hundreds or thousands of people knew this room as well as I did. A statement of this type is utter nonsense. How Herr Halder came to make that statement I do not know. Apparently that bad memory, which also let him down in military matters, is the only explanation.

Mr. Justice Jackson: You know who Halder is?

Göring: Only too well.

Counter-trial organised by the German Communist Party

During the summer of 1933, a mock counter-trial was organised in London by a group of lawyers, democrats and other anti-Nazis under the aegis of German Communist émigrés. The chairman of the mock trial was Labour barrister D N Pritt KC and the chief organiser was the KPD propaganda chief Willi Münzenberg. The other "judges" were Meester Piet Vermeylen of Belgium, George Branting of Sweden, Maître Vincent de Moro-Giafferi and Maître Gaston Bergery of France, Betsy Bakker-Nort of the Netherlands, Vald Hvidt of Denmark and Arthur Garfield Hays of the United States.

The mock trial began on 21 September 1933. It lasted one week and ended with the conclusion that the defendants were innocent and the true initiators of the fire, were to be found amid the leading Nazi Party elite. The counter-trial received much media attention and Sir Stafford Cripps delivered the opening speech. Göring was found guilty at the mock counter-trial. The mock trial served as a workshop, during which all possible scenarios were tested and all speeches of the defendants were prepared. Most of the "judges", such as Hays and Moro-Giafferi, complained that the atmosphere at the "Counter-trial" was more like a show trial, with Münzenberg constantly applying pressure behind the scenes on the "judges", to deliver the "right" verdict without any regard for the truth. One of the "witnesses", a supposed SA man, appeared in court wearing a mask and claimed that it was the SA that really set the fire; in fact, the "SA man" was Albert Norden, the editor of the German Communist newspaper "Rote Fahne". Another masked witness whom Hays described as "not very reliable", claimed that van der Lubbe was a drug-addicted homosexual, who was the lover of Ernst Röhm and a Nazi dupe. When the lawyer for Ernst Torgler, asked the mock trial organisers to turn over the "evidence" exonerating his client, Münzenberg refused the request because he lacked any "evidence" to exonerate or convict anyone of the crime. The counter-trial was an enormously successful publicity stunt for the German Communists. Münzenberg followed this triumph with another by writing under his name, the best-selling "The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror", an exposé of what Münzenberg alleged to be the Nazi conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag and blame the act on the Communists. (As with all of Münzenberg's books, the real author was one of his aides; in this case, a Czechoslovak Communist named Otto Katz.) The success of The Brown Book was followed by another best-seller published in 1934, again ghost-written by Katz, "The Second Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and the Hitler Terror".

The Brown Book was divided into three parts. The first part, which traced the rise of the Nazis (or "German Fascists" as Katz called them, in conformity with Comintern practice, which forbade the use of the term Nazi), portrayed the KPD as the only genuine anti-fascist force in Germany and featured a bitter attack on the SPD. Formed from dissidents within the SPD, the KPD led the communist uprisings in the early Weimar period—which the SPD crushed. The Brown Book labelled the SPD "Social Fascists" and accused the leadership of the SPD of secretly working with the Nazis. The second section featured numerous examples of Nazi terror directed against Communists; no mention is made of Communist violence or non-Communist Nazi victims. The impression The Brown Book gives, is that Communists are victims of Nazism and the only victims. The second section deals with the Reichstag fire, which is described as a Nazi plot to frame the Communists, who are represented as the most dedicated opponents of Nazism. The third section deals with the supposed puppet masters behind the Nazis.

As archetype

The term "Reichstag fire" is used by some writers to denote a calamitous event staged by a political movement, orchestrated in a manner that casts blame on their opponents, thus causing the opponents to be viewed with suspicion by the general public. This is sometimes known as a false flag attack. In modern histories the destruction of the palace of Diocletian at Nicomedia has been described as a "fourth-century Reichstag fire" used to justify an extensive persecution of Christians. According to Lactantius, "That [Galerius] might urge [Diocletian] to excess of cruelty in persecution, he employed private emissaries to set the palace on fire; and some part of it having been burnt, the blame was laid on the Christians as public enemies; and the very appellation of Christian grew odious on account of that fire." Tacitus' account of the burning of Rome involved similar allegations.

Modern events such as the 11 September 2001 (9/11) attacks have likewise been compared to the fire by conspiracy analysts raising doubt whether Al Qaeda was behind the attacks; or suggesting that whether the attack were indeed orchestrated by Al Qaeda, the US government used the attack to curb civil liberties and expand militarism.



The Reichstag Fire Syndrome

On 30 January 1933, Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor. On 27 February 1933, the German Parliament Building--the Reichstag-- burned down. The deep red glow of the burning Reichstag caught the eye of President Hindenburg and Vice-Chancellor Papen, who were dining at a club facing the building. Papen put the elderly Hindenburg in his own car and took him to the scene.

Hitler was at Göbbels's apartment having dinner. They rushed to the scene where they met Göring who was already screaming false charges and making threats against the Communists. At first glance, Hitler described the fire as a beacon from heaven. "You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in German history. . .  This fire is the beginning," Hitler told a news reporter at the scene.

While not all historians agree on who was actually responsible for the Reichstag Fire, writers such as Klaus P. Fischer feel that most likely the Nazis were responsible.

A dazed Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was found at the scene and charged with arson. He was later found guilty and executed.

On 28 February 1933--the day after the Reichstag fire--President Hindenburg and Chancellor Hitler invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which permitted the suspension of civil liberties in ime of national emergency.

"Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."

This Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State abrogated the following German constitutional protections:

• Free expression of opinion
• Freedom of the press
• Right of assembly and association
• Right to privacy of postal and electronic communications
• Protection against unlawful searches and seizures
• Individual property rights
• States' right of self-government

A supplemental decree created the SA (Storm Troops) and SS (Special Security) Federal police agencies.

It's most likely that Hitler and his henchmen created the Reichstag fire crisis so they could destroy civil rights in Germany. The Decree enabled the Nazis to ruthlessly suppress opposition in the upcoming election.

On his first day as Chancellor, Hitler manipulated Hindenburg into dissolving the Reichstag and calling for new elections. On March 5, 1933, the national elections gave the Nazis a 44% plurality in the Reichstag. Herman Göring--later to become the head of Germany's armed forces--declared that there was no further need for State governments. Over the next few weeks, each of the legal Weimar State governments falls to the same ruse:

• Local Nazi organizations instigate disorder
•The disorder is quelled by replacing the elected state government by appointed Nazi Reich Commissioners

On 24 March 1933, the Reichstag passed the Law for Terminating the Suffering of People and Nation, also known as the Enabling Law, essentially granting Adolf Hitler dictatorial power.

The Reichstag Fire Syndrome occurs whenever a democracy is destroyed by creating a law-and-order crisis and offering as a "solution" the abdication of civil liberties and state's rights to a powerful but unaccountable central dictator.


What Really Caused the Reichstag Fire
by Benjamin Carter Hett

Shortly after nine o'clock on the evening of 27 February 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin started to burn. By nine thirty a devastating fire was underway in the main plenary chamber. Although Berlin’s fire department was on the scene almost immediately, the chamber could not be saved (although the rest of the building remained almost undamaged). Even as the Reichstag burned, the arrests began: the new “Government of National Concentration” under Adolf Hitler, in office for only four weeks and facing an election in six more days, claimed immediately that the fire was the signal for a Communist uprising and used this pretext to lock away thousands of opponents. On the morning of February 28 Hitler’s government was ready with the legal text that has become known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree” -- an enactment that stripped the Weimar constitution of all individual rights (speech, assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrests, etc.) The distinguished lawyer and political scientist Ernst Fraenkel called the Reichstag Fire Decree the “constitutional charter” of Hitler’s Reich.

The historical importance of the Reichstag fire is thus clear -- but the question of who actually set the fire is much less clear. Not many people in 1933, and no one since 1945, believed the Nazis’ claim that “the Communists” set the fire. One man, a twenty-four-year-old journeyman mason from Holland named Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested inside the building. Van der Lubbe claimed from the moment of his arrest until his execution by guillotine in January 1934 that he had set the fire alone. But he was 80 percent blind and, at his trial in the fall of 1933, appeared to be mentally handicapped, and so few people saw him as a plausible culprit. Most people who were free to think for themselves in 1933 – for instance, all of the foreign correspondents at van der Lubbe’s trial -- believed in a third possibility: the fire in the Reichstag had been a Nazi conspiracy, with van der Lubbe playing the role of a dupe to direct suspicion toward the Communists (until 1931 he had been a member of the Dutch Communist Party).

Yet after the Second World War, the affair gradually become more and more controversial and interpretations changed. Since about the middle of the 1960s most historians of Nazi Germany, and almost all of the most influential (Hans Mommsen chief among them), have come to accept that van der Lubbe was telling the truth: he acted entirely alone in setting the fire, while the Nazis knew nothing about the fire before it happened and improvised brilliantly when it did.

Yet the controversy has continued, and indeed revived in recent years. The end of the Cold War and other factors have made available a vast trove of documents which were unavailable to researchers before the 1990s. It is therefore possible now to reach some new conclusions, not only about what happened on that cold February night in Berlin, but on the politics, pressures, and prejudices that drove the writing of history in Germany in the years after the Second World War. These points are dealt with in depth in my new book, "Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Last Mystery of Hitler’s Reich" (Oxford University Press, 2014).

At the heart of the story is a small group of Gestapo (Nazi secret police) officers who investigated the fire in 1933, and then provided historians with information about it after 1945. Most prominent among them was the first chief of the Gestapo, the young Rudolf Diels. Around Diels were the detectives Walter Zirpins and Helmut Heisig, who were the first to interrogate van der Lubbe on the night of the fire (Heisig was subsequently the officer in charge of the investigations); Rudolf Braschwitz, Heisig’s deputy; and Heinrich Schnitzler, who was not involved in the investigations but who held the post of chief administrator of the Gestapo. If one believed what these men said after the war -- and most historians have believed it -- they all concluded from the beginning that van der Lubbe had acted completely alone, and bravely insisted on this point to Nazi leaders like Herman Göring, bringing Nazi rage and even retribution on their own heads.

The problem is, documents from the investigations (which during the Cold War were housed in the USSR and then in East Germany, and only became freely available to researchers in the 1990s) completely contradict this picture of brave cops telling truth to power. In fact Diels’s officers worked hard to track down and arrest Communists in connection with the fire, even fabricating evidence against them and suborning perjury; Diels himself complained to the chief prosecutor that the prosecutor had not indicted all the suspects Diels’s officers had produced.

Why then would these officers tell a different story after 1945? The answer lies in what they did during the war and the legal jeopardy the faced after it. Walter Zirpins went on to run the criminal police in Lodz and the Lodz Ghetto; Helmut Heisig, as Gestapo chief in Würzburg, deported Jews to the camps; Rudolf Braschwitz was involved in “anti-partisan” warfare on the Eastern Front, which, as many recent historians have shown, was tantamount to the commission of mass atrocities against civilians. These men faced various, often long-running war crimes investigations and prosecutions over many years from the 1940s to the 1960s; and with the addition of Diels and Schnitzler they all faced de-Nazification cases into the early 1950s. Heisig, Braschwitz, and (to an extent) Diels also faced investigations specifically regarding their conduct of the Reichstag fire investigations. Therefore, starting about 1947, these men began to collaborate on a version of history in which they had bravely opposed Nazi crimes, rather than participating in them -- a story that was nothing but a desperate legal defense and public relations strategy.

And why did historians believe them? For historians this may be the most important part of the story. Part of the answer lies in a broader dynamic of postwar German history writing: that mainstream German historians were much more willing to accept accounts from (obviously non-Jewish) Nazi perpetrators than they were from Jewish or Communist Nazi victims. But there was a more specific element in the Reichstag fire case. A senior official in one of Germany’s domestic intelligence services named Fritz Tobias, who had close personal and professional ties to several of these former Gestapo officers, adopted their story and incorporated it into a 1959 series of articles on the fire for the influential German news magazine "Der Spiegel", and then in a weighty 1962 book, "The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Realty". Remarkably, Tobias was able and willing to use his power as an intelligence official to get information unavailable to ordinary mortals and to threaten, intimidate, and even blackmail historians who disagreed with his views. His most important achievement in this connection was to blackmail the director of the influential Institute for Contemporary History in Munich with records of this director’s Nazi past, so that the Institute backed Tobias’s position and assigned the gifted young historians Hans Mommsen to publish an endorsement of Tobias’s views in the Institute’s own journal. The rest is, so to speak, history, and most historians to this day hold to the position that van der Lubbe was a sole culprit -- even though scientific evidence about the course of the fire has shown again and again that one person could not have set the devastating fire in the Reichstag’s plenary chamber, and plausible circumstantial evidence points to a small group of Berlin SA men as the real culprits.


The Conspiracists
Review of "Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery" by Benjamin Carter Hett
Richard J. Evans
London Review of Books
8 May 2014
Oxford

Conspiracy theories cluster around violent and unexpected political events. The sudden death of a head of state, the assassination of a government minister, a bomb attack on a building or a crowd: these seemingly random occurrences demand explanation, and for many, the idea that they could be the product of the deranged mind of a single individual seems too simple to be plausible. The authorship must surely have been collective, the planning long-term and meticulous. The killing of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, or the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, are the two major vortices into which conspiracy theorists have been sucked in our own time, generating ever more elaborate explanations and pseudo-explanations. Argument continues to rage, as the proponents of rival theories construct evidential edifices of such staggering detail and complexity that they are often almost impossible for a lay reader to navigate.

Alternative histories of this kind have a long history. Just over eighty years ago another major and wholly unpredicted violent event occurred in Berlin, then early in the transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich, with Hitler installed as Chancellor but not yet in possession of dictatorial power. Just after nine o’clock on the evening of 27 February 1933, passers-by heard the sound of breaking glass coming from the Reichstag and, shortly afterwards, saw flames beginning to light up the inside of the building. Fire engines were summoned and brought the blaze under control, but it was too late to save the debating chamber. Arriving on the scene, Hitler, Göring, Göbbels and the interior minister, Wilhelm Frick, declared that the arson attack was a Communist plot, designed, as Göbbels put it in his diary, ‘through fire and terror to sow confusion in order in the general panic to grasp power for themselves’. ‘You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer,’ Hitler told the "Daily Express" reporter Sefton Delmer, who also arrived at the scene. Göring ordered the mass arrest of Communists, and Nazi Stormtroopers, already enrolled as auxiliary policemen, fanned out across the capital, picking up party activists and taking them to makeshift prisons and torture centres.

The next morning, the cabinet, which still had a non-Nazi majority, met to draw up an emergency decree that abrogated civil liberties across Germany. Signed by President Hindenburg the same day, it abolished freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of the press, suspended the autonomy of federated states, such as Baden and Bavaria, and legalised phone-tapping, the interception of correspondence and other intrusions. This was the first of the two fundamental documents on which the dictatorship of the Third Reich was erected. The Enabling Act, passed, thanks to Nazi intimidation, by the Reichstag on 23 March, assigned exclusive legislative power to Hitler and his ministers, bypassing the president and the Reichstag. This was the second. The crucial emergency powers granted to the government by the decree of 28 February were periodically renewed right up to 1945. The Nazis used them to bludgeon their opponents into submission and their allies into compliance. By the summer of 1933 all opposition had been crushed, more than a hundred thousand Communists, Social Democrats and other opponents of the Nazis had been sent to concentration camps, all independent political parties had been forced to dissolve themselves and the Nazi dictatorship had been firmly established.

The Third Reich was founded on a conspiracy theory. The Communists, the Nazis’ most implacable opponents, had won 17 per cent of the vote in the last completely free elections of the Weimar Republic, in November 1932, increasing their support while the Nazis dropped back. They had never made any secret of wanting to destroy Weimar democracy and create a Communist state. It seemed obvious to Hitler that the destruction of the Reichstag could only be the result of a Communist plot to seize power. The Nazi leadership proceeded therefore to charge a number of Communists with conspiracy. A wave of propaganda convinced many middle-class Germans that the emergency decree was justified.

During the blaze, the police found a young Dutchman called Marinus van der Lubbe in the building. He had firelighters in his possession and other suspicious material. By the time he was brought to trial before the Supreme Court in Leipzig, he had been joined in the dock by Georgi Dimitrov, head of the Central Europe Section of the Communist International, two other Bulgarian Communists who had been in Berlin at the time of the fire, and Ernst Torgler, chairman of the German Communist Party in the Reichstag. The trial was a fiasco. Dimitrov ran rings round the prosecution, reduced Göring, who appeared as a witness, to incoherent rage, and mocked the Nazis’ conspiracy theory with wit and panache. The trial judges, led by Wilhelm Bünger, a conservative but not a Nazi, a former minister-president of Saxony, found that the Communists had planned the fire, but dismissed the charges against Torgler and the three Bulgarians on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Van der Lubbe was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed in accordance with a Nazi decree postdating the fire that made arson subject to capital punishment – the first of many Nazi violations of fundamental legal principles. The Nazis did their best to make political capital out of the verdict, but privately Hitler was furious. He quickly set up a new system of special courts, crowned by the so-called People’s Court, to bypass the clearly unreliable traditional legal system and deliver the verdicts he wanted in future cases. But Torgler and the Bulgarians could not be tried again (double jeopardy was a principle even the Nazis were unwilling to violate at this point), and they were eventually released; after secret negotiations they made their way to the Soviet Union. Dimitrov would become the first Communist leader of Bulgaria after the war. Torgler, probably to save his son from the violent retribution threatened by the Nazis, began working for the Gestapo and eventually took a minor post in the Propaganda Ministry, a move that caused him considerable problems after the war.

Before the trial had even begun, Dimitrov and the Communist propaganda apparatus, under the enterprising leadership of the legendary Willi Münzenberg, had developed their own conspiracy theory about the fire. The Nazis had benefited, so the Nazis must have started it. Münzenberg and his team rapidly put together "The Brown Book on the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror", published in London in the same year. Aside from the numerous, undoubtedly genuine and often moving accounts of Nazi brutality by its victims, The Brown Book presented ninety pages of documentation purporting to show that a Nazi team of arsonists, led by a prominent brownshirt called Edmund Heines, had entered the Reichstag through a secret tunnel from Göring’s official residence, set light to the building in many places, then gone back through the tunnel to safety, leaving the hapless van der Lubbe to take the blame. The book put particular weight on a memorandum blaming the Nazis supposedly written by Ernst Oberfohren, the parliamentary leader of the Nationalist Party, allies of the Nazis.

The Brown Book, backed up by a sensational mock trial in absentia of the supposed Nazi authors of the blaze, held before carefully selected international judges in London, put the Nazis on the defensive. Münzenberg had achieved a propaganda coup. The allegations of The Brown Book were widely believed: here, it seemed, was a conspiracy theory that could be trusted. Yet after the war, despite a massive programme of denazification and prosecution, no new arsonists were identified. The amnesiac political culture of West Germany at the time worked against any attempt to identify Nazis who might have been involved. In East Germany, The Brown Book continued to be regarded as gospel truth, and no point was seen in pursuing the matter.

Then, in 1959, a series of articles appeared in "Der Spiegel", arguing that van der Lubbe had acted alone. Three years later, the research they were based on was published in greatly expanded form in a book by the previously unknown Fritz Tobias, entitled "The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Reality". In well over seven hundred pages it presented meticulously detailed analyses of the evidence backed by an enormous quantity of careful research in support of the thesis that van der Lubbe had been the only person involved.

Among other things, Tobias produced contemporary evidence which demonstrated that Oberfohren had not written the memorandum. He pointed out that van der Lubbe had always denied anyone else was involved in the arson, and had greeted Dimitrov’s claim to the contrary in court with open amusement. The expert witnesses called to explain how the fire had spread so quickly testified that the fires must have been laid with incendiary liquids at a number of points simultaneously – but they knew that failure to conclude that van der Lubbe was part of a Communist conspiracy would have brought them into serious danger.

Tobias noted that no traces of flammable liquids or containers had been found at the site of the fire. He also exposed massive contradictions in the accounts given by a number of those close to the action and showed that after the war they had amended their accounts in order to present themselves in a good light. The book was a formidable challenge to the Communist version of events.

The vehement and dismissive language Tobias used marked his book as the work of an outsider to the historical profession, but it received crucial backing when the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, Germany’s leading centre for research into National Socialism, commissioned the young historian Hans Mommsen – who would in time become the doyen of Third Reich historiography – to investigate the matter. Mommsen backed Tobias in a powerful article and went on to argue that the Nazis were opportunists who had seized on chance occurrences to further their own purposes. This became known as the ‘functionalist’ interpretation of power in the Third Reich, as opposed to the ‘intentionalist’ view that saw everything as the deliberate outcome of Hitler’s plans.

The proponents of the conspiracy theory that held the Nazis responsible were not going to let the matter rest here. Münzenberg was long since dead, murdered in 1940 in the French Alps on his way to the Swiss border, probably by an agent of Stalin’s secret police. He had become inconvenient, caught in the pincers of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But by the 1960s a new generation was ready to revive his conspiracy theory. The most active was a Croatian journalist called Edouard Calic, born in 1910. While studying in Berlin during the war, Calic had been suspected of taking part in ‘plot-like conspiracies’ and spying for the British. He was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen but survived, and after the war stayed in Germany.

Calic said he was outraged by the findings of Tobias, whom he defamed as a ‘Nazi of the first hour’, though he was in fact a lifelong Social Democrat. He began publishing evidence that he claimed proved that the Nazis had started the fire after all, but critics soon began to spot anomalies. In 1968 he published, as a book, transcripts of two interviews with Hitler allegedly conducted in 1931 by a senior newspaper editor called Richard Breiting, and subsequently supposedly buried by him in a canister in his garden because he feared for his life should they be discovered. The interviews showed Hitler was making plans to burn the Reichstag two years before the event. ‘In my opinion,’ he is recorded as saying to Breiting, ‘the sooner this talking shop is burned down, the sooner the German people will be freed from foreign influence.’ The anomalies piled up, however, and Hugh Trevor-Roper and others immediately denounced the book as a forgery. Suggestively entitled "Unmasked", it had obviously been in large part, if not completely, made up by Calic himself. I used to give the book to my students and ask them to decide whether it was genuine; they had no difficulty in concluding that it wasn’t.

Despite the doubts expressed by Trevor-Roper et al, though, many serious historians praised "Unmasked". Building on this success, Calic formed a committee to research the origins and consequences of the Second World War – the so-called Luxembourg Committee. In 1972 and 1978 the committee produced two large volumes of documents and commentary ("Der Reichstagsbrand: Eine wissenschaftliche Dokumentation"), containing old and new expert witness reports, the testimony of a number of firemen who fought the blaze, excerpts from the testimony of van der Lubbe, and more than fifty pages analysing the evidence concerning the underground passage. Tobias and Mommsen were accused of deliberately falsifying the reports of the expert witnesses. A particular feature of the volumes, however, was their claim that a whole series of inconvenient witnesses of the Nazis’ responsibility for the attack died soon after the fire, above all in the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s purge of the Stormtrooper organisation at the end of June 1934. Oberfohren was found dead at his desk just a few weeks after the fire, and Breiting died, supposedly poisoned by the Gestapo, in 1937. Mysterious deaths are a key part of many conspiracy theories.

The two imposing volumes were also accused of containing forgeries and falsifications, first in a series of articles in the liberal weekly "Die Zeit" in 1979 and then in "Reichstagsbrand: Aufklärung einer historischen Legende", a volume published in 1986 with contributions by Mommsen, Tobias and others. Most of the committee’s documents were not made available to historians to check, or appeared only as excerpts; almost all of their authors were dead so could not be questioned about them; and they contained numerous contradictions of known facts.

One of the forged documents drew its inspiration from the report of a talk with Göring recorded in Hermann Rauschning’s "Conversations with Hitler", published in 1940. Rauschning, a renegade Nazi, wrote that Göring had admitted responsibility for the fire, but when his attention was drawn to this passage at Nuremberg, Göring said he had only met Rauschning twice in passing, and would never have made such an admission to a stranger. In fact, nothing was genuine in Rauschning’s book: his ‘conversations with Hitler’ had no more taken place than his conversations with Göring. He had been put up to writing the book by Winston Churchill’s literary agent, Emery Reeves, who was also responsible for another highly dubious set of memoirs, the industrialist Fritz Thyssen’s "I Paid Hitler".

Calic himself was revealed to have lied about his own past: he claimed to have been imprisoned in Sachsenhausen in 1941 but wasn’t sent to the camp until February 1943. His assertion that he had obtained documentary evidence of the Nazi responsibility for the Reichstag fire from one of the 1944 military conspirators against Hitler whom he had met in Sachsenhausen was revealed to be an invention since there was no record of the conspirator actually having been there. A court case in 1982 ruled that it was legitimate to describe Calic as a ‘shady character’. Finally, on 9 March this year "Die Welt" revealed that in 1961 Calic had informed the Stasi about a route used by East Germans to escape to the West. A true disciple of Münzenberg, he evidently believed that forgery was justified by the political effect it produced.

In the end Calic only succeeded in convincing the bulk of the historical profession that Tobias was right, and that the sole author of the Reichstag fire was Marinus van der Lubbe. Significantly, East German historians did not intervene in the dispute, passing over Tobias’s work and its critics, preferring instead to join with Bulgarian and Soviet historians in publishing previously unavailable (and undoubtedly genuine) documents from their archives in 1982 and 1989 as "Der Reichstagsbrandprozess und Georgi Dimitroff".

In the 1990s, however, dissenting voices could be heard once more. In 1992, a political scientist, Alexander Bahar, a student of the titular head of the Luxembourg Committee, reissued the committee’s documentation as, he said, an act of ‘resistance against fascist tendencies’ in the newly unified Germany. Eight years later, together with Wilfried Kugel, he published a book of more than eight hundred pages, presenting the same arguments again but using evidence from the police investigation records, trial documents and interrogation protocols discovered in the East German archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This new attempt to vindicate The Brown Book and its successors was roundly dismissed in a series of hostile reviews. Even the more neutral reviewers concluded that the new documentation, while useful, proved nothing.

Kugel, described as a physicist and psychologist, was registered with the Parapsychological Association of America, so it was hardly surprising that among the evidence the book presented was a report of a séance held in Berlin the night before the fire, in which the police chief, von Helldorf, asked a medium: ‘Will our great plan to secure power succeed?’ The hint that this referred to the Reichstag fire had, of course, no basis in reality. Even more bizarrely, Bahar and Kugel suggested that the clairvoyant might have hypnotised van der Lubbe into allowing himself to be used by the Nazis.

In a lengthy article in "Der Spiegel" and a short book, "Der Reichstagsbrand: Die Karriere eines Kriminalfalls", published in 2008, Sven Kellerhoff, an editor at the conservative daily paper "Die Welt", systematically took Bahar and Kugel’s work apart, and with it the whole conspiracy theory that went back to The Brown Book. He pointed out once more that no traces of flammable liquids had been found after the blaze. There was no evidence that the underground passage to Göring’s residence had been used: Tobias had already pointed out that the underground tunnel was more or less impassable because filled with steam pipes from a boiler room located for safety reasons away from the main building; it was in any case almost impossible to get into the Reichstag through the maze of corridors and locked doors at the end of the tunnel. Kellerhoff noted that of the Stormtroopers who had supposedly set the fire, Hans Georg Gewehr had demonstrably no connection with the deed, while another, Adolf Rall, had been in a remand prison at the time. If the Nazis had come through the passage, set the building alight, then gone back the way they had come, he asked, why did passers-by hear the sound of broken glass just before the fire began?

Kellerhoff’s book might have been thought to have set the matter to rest. But now a fresh attempt has been made to vindicate the theses of The Brown Book. It comes from an American lawyer and historian, Benjamin Carter Hett, who made his name with a well-researched and passionately written biography of the left-wing lawyer Hans Litten, whose humiliation of Hitler in a cross-examination during the trial of a group of Stormtroopers towards the end of the Weimar Republic led to his arrest on the night of the Reichstag fire and treatment of such brutality in the camps that he eventually committed suicide. The book deservedly won the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History (I was on the jury that awarded it). Hett’s interest in the Reichstag fire was evidently kindled by this earlier work.

His new book, "Burning the Reichstag", rests on material found in two dozen archives in several countries, some, like the Stasi archives, not consulted by previous researchers, as well as on private collections (notably that of Tobias), correspondence and interviews. It is an impressive piece of work that presents fresh evidence and puts its theses forward with far greater sophistication than earlier defenders of The Brown Book’s arguments. It is well written and highly readable. But it is the work of a prosecuting attorney rather than of a balanced historian.

Hett’s book fails to engage directly with much of the previous literature: Kellerhoff’s book is mentioned only twice, for example, and its arguments are not confronted. Historians who have accepted Tobias’s conclusions are dismissed as ignorant or careless on the basis of a handful of extremely minor errors, a tactic which diverts attention from the substantive issues. Hett’s preferred method is the classic courtroom tactic of discrediting witnesses. Thus the Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels, who did not believe there was a Nazi conspiracy, is discredited because the Gestapo was pro-Nazi and corrupt, and anyway he was a womaniser and thus immoral and unreliable, while a rival Gestapo official, Hans Bernd Gisevius, whose testimony in favour of the conspiracy thesis Hett likes, is described as ‘an early opponent of Hitler’s rule’ although in 1933 he was busy locking up Communists and other genuine opponents of the Nazis. The judicial and police apparatus at the time of the fire was in any case not yet Nazified, as the thousands of prosecutions brought against violent stormtroopers, and later quashed on Hitler’s orders, indicate.

He portrays Tobias as a Nazi who admired Hitler and who as an official in the Netherlands during the war carried out activities that ‘could have involved exposing Jews to deportation’, an allegation typical of the innuendo that is his stock-in-trade. After the war, Hett claims, Tobias was friendly with old Nazis; he also complains that a new edition of Tobias’s book was published in 2011 by the far-right press Grabert Verlag (at the time of the agreement to publish, Tobias was terminally ill, and the book only came out after his death). He doesn’t mention that Tobias’s critics’ work appeared mostly from obscure left-wing publishing houses.

Tobias was friendly with many people, including left-wingers like van der Lubbe’s former comrades in the Netherlands. Hett, following earlier allegations by Calic, claims Tobias allowed himself to be used as the mouthpiece of former Gestapo officials who feared prosecution in the 1950s for their part in the fire, though such men would have known that the likelihood of prosecution was extremely slim, given West Germany’s dismal record in prosecuting war criminals and the fact that the statute of limitations gave immunity from prosecution for a crime such as arson committed in 1933.

Hett claims that Tobias worked for the intelligence service and used the information at his disposal to blackmail the Institute for Contemporary History into vindicating his own views by threatening to expose the Nazi past of the Institute’s director, Helmut Krausnick (this was no secret, and Krausnick’s many contributions to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals over the years made the fact more or less irrelevant).

In building up his case, Hett deploys a whole armoury of suggestion and innuendo. He provides detailed evidence that stormtroopers were trained in the use of fire-raising equipment with kerosene and rags, which they used to set light to advertising columns displaying anti-Nazi posters, but this in no way proves that such training was intended to prepare for the burning down of the Reichstag. He goes into detail about the stormtroopers’ murder of inconvenient witnesses, but is completely unable to demonstrate that they were murdered because they were (supposedly) witnesses to the fire. He does admit Oberfohren most likely committed suicide, but tries to rescue the views he allegedly expressed in the (forged) memorandum, though these were no more than hearsay.

As for the Stormtroopers’ supposed recruitment of van der Lubbe as a stooge, all Hett can say is that he seems to have met a Communist activist called Walter Jahnecke some days before the fire, that Jahnecke might have been a police agent, and that his friend Willi Hintze, who also met van der Lubbe at a flat where he was staying for the night on 22 February, was definitely a police agent. This apparently makes Jahnecke and Hintze ‘plausible candidates for having brought van der Lubbe into the orbit of the SA’. Other than this tissue of supposition, however (the two men were not members of the SA), there is no evidence at all that the arsonist had any contact with Stormtroopers before the fire. Surely it would have taken a lot more than an evening spent in a flat with two men who claimed to be Communists and were generally believed to be so to secure him as a stooge in an operation as elaborate and dangerous as burning down the Reichstag. And while the supposed leader of the arsonists, Hans Georg Gewehr, in later years dropped dark hints that he had taken part in the action, he was a notorious drunkard whose command over truth and memory was extremely shaky. When Gisevius named Gewehr as a main suspect, he believed him to be dead, but he was very much alive, and emerged successfully from the historical woodwork to sue Gisevius for libel, and win.

Hett points out that the decree suspending civil liberties had been prepared long before the fire, but this does not show that the Nazis planned to burn down the Reichstag, merely that they intended to suspend civil liberties, and that senior civil servants had drawn up contingency plans for this well before the Nazis came to power. Lists of Communist Party members were also drawn up by the police long before the fire, but again, this does not show that the fire was pre-planned, simply that the police expected at some point to arrest these people.

Hett passes over evidence that goes against his argument. Hitler’s intimate Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstängl, barfly and man about town, who broke decisively with the Nazis in the mid-1930s, later remembered being woken up by the shouts of the housekeeper as he dozed in bed in a room in Göring’s official residence, which had a clear view of the Reichstag. He looked out of the window and saw the building on fire. He phoned Göbbels to tell him the news. Göbbels thought the notoriously frivolous Hanfstängl was joking and refused to tell Hitler. But after making some inquiries he concluded the report was true, and it was at this point that he and Hitler made their way to the scene. Why would Hanfstängl lie about this, when he was willing to spread all kinds of scurrilous gossip about the leading Nazis? His story was also corroborated by the memoirs of Sefton Delmer. But Hett does not mention that.

Kellerhoff argued that the policemen who had investigated the fire, Helmut Heisig and Walter Zirpins, were right to conclude that ‘the question of whether van der Lubbe carried out the deed alone may be answered in the affirmative without further consideration.’ He had climbed in through a window after breaking the glass: fingerprints, unidentifiable because of the rough surface, were found on the window-ledge. Once inside, he ran through the building, finding the right target finally in the curtains of the main chamber, which he set alight, causing a fire that spread rapidly, leading to an explosive combustion or backdraft (Hett’s attempt to discredit this point in an endnote is unconvincing). If the Nazis had really lit the fire that killed the Weimar Republic, why did they not plant evidence of Communist conspiracy in the Reichstag? This was their standard practice, used for example in their attempt to attribute to the Polish government an attack on a German radio station at Gleiwitz in 1939 that they carried out themselves as a pretext for launching hostilities. On that occasion they left bodies lying around (concentration camp inmates dressed in Polish uniforms) and it seems obvious that they would have done something similar if they had planned the Reichstag fire.

Why did Delmer find the Nazi leaders in a state of panic when he arrived on the scene? If Göbbels had been involved in the preparations why didn’t he mention them in his private diaries, when he describes preparations for far greater crimes, including the mass murder of Europe’s Jews? Hett claims that Göbbels must have omitted them because he knew the diaries would be published, but in 1933 he was publishing only carefully edited extracts: the intention to publish everything, signalled by his switch from writing to dictating, came only later. Even in 1938, when he publicly described the pogrom of 9-10 November as a spontaneous outburst of popular anger against the Jews, Göbbels recorded in his diary that he himself had orchestrated it.

Crucially, Hett is unable to deal convincingly with the problem of van der Lubbe. Why would the Nazis have chosen him as their stooge when he was not even a paid-up member of the German Communist Party or any other Communist organisation? There is no more evidence to back up Hett’s claim that he was drugged by the Nazis during his trial to stop him revealing the fact that he had acted on their behalf as part of a larger group of arsonists than there is for Bahar and Kugel’s suggestion that he was hypnotised. Van der Lubbe, Hett tells us, had poor eyesight as a result of an industrial accident, but he was not so blind as to fail to recognise large pieces of furniture, doors and other obstacles in his passage through the building. Contemporary reports describe him as panting and sweating profusely when he was arrested, as he would have been had he just rushed through the building rather than hanging around as a Nazi stooge or acting in concert with others. In endless hours of interrogation, van der Lubbe never deviated from his story that he had acted alone, and never once accused the Nazis themselves of being behind the crime. His confession remains a compelling piece of evidence.

Rejecting the thesis of Nazi guilt does not commit one to seeing the fire, as Tobias did, as a random event. The Nazis would have found an excuse to curtail civil liberties and eventually abolish them without the fire. Everything suggests that the momentum towards the establishment of a dictatorship was fast becoming irresistible. Van der Lubbe’s act was not really random: a former anarcho-syndicalist, he had already tried unsuccessfully to set fire to a series of public buildings in protest against the political and social system he held responsible for mass unemployment – nearly 40 per cent, an almost unimaginable figure even in today’s recession. Without the Depression, there would have been no compelling reason to set the symbols of bourgeois rule alight.

According to Hett, Tobias’s conclusion, that the Reichstag fire was a ‘blind chance, an error’ that ‘unleashed a revolution’, amounts to ‘effectively erasing from the historical record the Nazis’ lust for power and the ruthlessness with which they sought it’. Tobias’s work therefore reeks of ‘apologetic intentions’, not least because it pins the blame for the blaze on a non-German. Hett presents no direct evidence for this misrepresentation of Tobias’s purposes; there is plenty in Tobias’s work to refute Hett’s claim that he believed there was ‘no long-term strategy … behind Hitler’s entire bid for power’ – for example, his contextual section on ‘Germany 1932’. For Mommsen and Kellerhoff, on the other hand, the persistent attempts to vindicate The Brown Book and portray the fire as a carefully planned operation threatened to exculpate the role of the German people in the creation of the Third Reich by portraying them as victims of a deliberate conspiracy to seize power instead of accepting their complicity in the process.

There is no evidence that Tobias intended to provide excuses for the Nazis or underplay their violence or lust for power: on the contrary, he pointed out, in a passage not cited by Hett, that the Nazis committed far greater crimes later in their rule so that ‘their guilt is too great for this supposed “exculpation” to carry any weight.’ Far from being only ‘nominally a Social Democrat’, Tobias was a genuine and long-term member of the party. His real concern, typical of a moderate Social Democrat, was the polarisation of right-wing and left-wing views during the Cold War, which was reaching its height when his book appeared in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He saw it as replicating the polarisation of politics in Germany in 1932-33. In such a situation, he thought, a single event could lead to unimaginably disastrous consequences; and he ended his book with a quote from Bertrand Russell, whose uncompromising campaign against nuclear weapons he clearly applauded.

For Münzenberg and later Calic and the Luxembourg Committee, conspiracy theories came naturally in a Communist movement that had seen Stalin launch trials of plotters and saboteurs, just as he would soon stage the show trials that portrayed many leading Old Bolsheviks as part of a vast conspiracy to overthrow the Soviet Union. This tradition has long since come to an end, but it has been replaced with a new form of conspiracy theory in the Internet age. Hett’s book is permeated by it: the Nazis conspired to burn down the Reichstag, Tobias conspired with ex-SS men to deny it, Krausnick and Mommsen conspired to deny the Nazis’ involvement. Conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily wrong, and in some cases there is compelling evidence that conspiracies did lie behind major historical events. But not this one.


Richard J. Evans is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge and provost of Gresham College, London. He is the author of "The Third Reich at War" and other works of German history.

5 June 2014

Although I am honoured that my book "Burning the Reichstag" has drawn Richard Evans’s attention, his critique neglects crucial lines of my argument. Evans makes no mention of what I present as the main flaw in the Fritz Tobias/Hans Mommsen ‘single culprit’ theory: every scientific expert I have consulted, or who was called on to give an opinion in 1933, has found it ‘very difficult’ or ‘impossible’ to imagine how one man armed with nothing more than matches and firelighters could in fifteen minutes have set the fire that destroyed the Reichstag’s chamber. The experts I consulted dismissed the explanations for the fire put forward by Evans’s preferred authors, like Fritz Tobias and Sven Felix Kellerhoff, as uninformed and misguided.

Evans also partly neglects, and partly misstates, the second major line of argument in my book: that the notion that van der Lubbe burned down the Reichstag by himself was, in its postwar version, little more than a desperate legal defence strategy on the part of war criminals. Helmut Heisig, Rudolf Braschwitz and Walter Zirpins had investigated the fire in 1933. After the war they maintained that they had always believed, and had argued in 1933, that van der Lubbe had set the fire by himself. But newly available evidence shows that they worked enthusiastically to arrest, frame and prosecute considerable numbers of Communists. Evans claims that these men did not have to fear prosecution for the Reichstag fire after the war (and thus had no incentive to lie), and even that the statute of limitations barred prosecutions for crimes from 1933. This is simply wrong. Criminal cases arising from their work on the Reichstag fire were launched against Heisig and Braschwitz. Braschwitz acknowledged that he would be in legal jeopardy were it proven that his 1933 investigations had focused on van der Lubbe while ignoring evidence against others. This point was clear to them all. The limitation period for most crimes from the Nazi period didn’t end until 8 May 1960, though any investigation started before that date could be continued. The case against Braschwitz dragged on until March 1962, by which time Tobias’s single-culprit theory was publicly established. Evans also neglects to mention that Heisig had deported Jews to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, that Braschwitz was involved in the dirty ‘anti-partisan’ war in the Soviet Union, and that Zirpins had commanded the criminal police in Lodz and the Lodz Ghetto.

Indeed, Evans is surprisingly insouciant about Tobias’s far-right connections and bad conduct as a historian. He doesn’t mention that Tobias contributed a chapter to a festschrift for David Irving. He downplays Tobias’s decision to republish his book with the far-right publisher Grabert Verlag, although in his own writings Evans has noted Grabert’s involvement with Holocaust denial. Tobias demonstrably falsified the historical record at many points, even wholly inventing a substantial story about one witness to the fire. He also suppressed evidence, in particular a letter written by the former Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels accusing a Nazi stormtrooper called Hans Georg Gewehr of being the main culprit. The letter was in Tobias’s possession, probably for decades. Evans downplays Tobias’s blackmailing of Helmut Krausnick, director of the Institute for Contemporary History, stating (incorrectly) that Krausnick’s Nazi Party membership was publicly known in 1962.

It is disappointing that Evans, the scourge of David Irving, is in this case willing to defend a man who so grossly flouted the core values of serious historical practice.

Benjamin Carter Hett
Hunter College, New York

Richard J. Evans writes: Benjamin Carter Hett’s letter contains the same non sequiturs and illogicalities as his book. As far as the forensic evidence is concerned: of course ‘experts’ consulted by those peddling the theory that there was a conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag in 1933 will oblige by providing the answers they think are being sought. ‘Expert’ reports from the present day about events that occurred eighty years ago are worthless. The fact remains that no traces of kerosene or other incendiary liquids were found at the scene of the blaze: an impossibility if they had actually been used to light fires in locations spread across the building. The fact that Heisig, Braschwitz and Zirpins were arresting Communists in 1933 proves nothing in relation to the authorship of the fire: policemen were doing this all over Germany, and doubtless would have done so at some stage during these months even had the Reichstag not burned.

Nor is the involvement of these men in war crimes of any relevance to the fire, or to their alleged fear of being prosecuted in connection with it, though Hett makes their supposed anxiety the principal reason for Tobias’s authorship of a 700-page book allegedly aimed at exculpating potential Nazi objects of prosecution for the fire. There were, it is true, a handful of prosecutions for Nazi crimes, including the pogroms of 1938, before the statute of limitations came into effect in 1960, but in the amnesiac culture of the Federal Republic in the 1950s, even major Nazi criminals had scant reason to fear arrest. The few prosecutions that were launched mostly ran into the sand or ended in acquittal or scandalously lenient sentences. Prosecutions begun before 1960 could be continued, but these were for cases of murder, mostly committed during the war. And anyway, the ‘case against Braschwitz’ never actually came to prosecution.

Hett’s ignorance of the legal and political culture of West Germany in the 1950s and early 1960s is also evidenced by his attempt to blacken the name of Fritz Tobias by alluding to his ‘far-right connections’. Nobody in West Germany at the time could avoid connections with ex-Nazis, who permeated the entire legal, political and media world. To suppose that Krausnick falsified history because he was being ‘blackmailed’ by Tobias is as ludicrous as it is offensive to a historian whose role in bringing Nazi criminality to account was outstanding. Hett’s point about the Grabert Verlag is already dealt with in my review. Finally, to portray Tobias as an old Nazi out to protect his former comrades from prosecution is to fly in the face of the evidence of his firm Social Democratic convictions as expressed in the concluding paragraphs of his book. If anything could be described as grossly flouting the core values of serious historical practice, it’s surely this. 

19 June 2014

In his review of Benjamin Carter Hett’s book "Burning the Reichstag", Richard J. Evans is tendentious in his criticism of our research. We were the first to evaluate all the historical files on the Reichstag fire, which have been available only since 1991. The ‘single culprit theory’ promoted by Fritz Tobias, Hans Mommsen and others is obsolete. Sven Kellerhoff, a follower of Tobias and Mommsen, was not able to ‘take our work apart’, as Evans puts it.

The review contains several errors and false suggestions. First, Alexander Bahar was not ‘a student of the titular head of the Luxembourg Committee’. Second, Evans withholds the fact that the ‘medium’ who predicted the Reichstag fire the day before was the world-famous mentalist Hanussen. Hanussen’s prediction was not a prophecy: it was based on information that he had acquired from SA inner circles through his friend the SA leader Count von Helldorf (who was not a ‘police chief’ in February 1933, as Evans claims). Hanussen’s indiscretion was one of the reasons he was murdered by the SA less than four weeks later. Third, concerning the alleged single culprit Marinus van der Lubbe, Evans leaves out the most important facts. Fingerprints were found inside the Reichstag building, but none of them, including prints on objects he must have touched, was van der Lubbe’s. Van der Lubbe’s story ‘that he had acted alone’ was inconsistent; he wasn’t able to give a plausible explanation of how he had set the fire, and contradicted himself in his various statements. ‘His confession remains a compelling piece of evidence,’ Evans claims nevertheless. He also ignores the short time – a maximum of 13 minutes – available to van der Lubbe to set the fire. The experts consulted in 1933 by the Supreme Court in Leipzig weren’t the only ones to state that it was impossible for one person to have managed without fire accelerants: experts in fire protection and thermodynamics have in recent years reached the same conclusion.

Alexander Bahar - Wilfried Kugel
Heilbronn, Germany; Berlin

Historians find 'proof' that Nazis burnt Reichstag
By Tony Paterson in Berlin
The Telegraph
15 April 2001

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, Jürgen Schmädeke, 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.

The Reichstag Fire - an end to the controversy...?
22 July 2013

When the German parliament building in Berlin - the Reichstag - caught fire shortly after 9pm on the evening of 27 February 1933, it marked the beginning of a lengthy controversy. Already that same night, in the Reichstag building itself, Nazi authorities picked up a young Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, who had apparently been caught red-handed setting the fire.  Upon his arrest, it was said, he was asked why he had done it.  He answered: "Protest! Protest!"

Despite this apparently copper-bottomed case, many of the opponents of the Nazis - especially on the political left - were swiftly proclaiming the fire to be an archetypal 'false flag' operation; an arson attack carried out by the Nazis themselves, to be pinned onto their opponents.

This hypothesis had two primary foundations: the first was the so-called 'Oberfohren Memorandum' - a selection of circumstantial evidence collected at the time and later expanded and published as the "Brown Book", which pointed to the Nazis as the culprits.

The second was based on the principle of "Cui bono?" - 'who benefits?'.  Given that the Nazis clearly benefited enormously from the fire - in that by foreshadowing a communist rising it eased their passage of laws clamping down on the left in particular and on civil rights in general - it seemed plausible to suggest that they must have started it themselves.  This line was very popular outside Germany during the war, was presented at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 and has long held currency.  Indeed, when Georg Elser attempted to assassinate Hitler in Munich in 1939, many on the left immediately branded the near miss as "a second Reichstag Fire" - that is, a attack orchestrated by the Nazis themselves for their own political benefit.

This controversy rumbled on through the post-war years, bursting into life occasionally as new 'documents' came to light and the German press interested itself once again.  In fact it almost became another mini 'Historikerstreit', except that, in this case, most of the serious historians tended to be on one side of the argument.

A recent book by Berlin historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff has now arguably put the story to bed for the last time. "Der Reichstagsbrand" (The Reichstag Fire) is only short, at about 160 pages, but provides a punchy, readable account of the case itself as well as its curious afterlife, and benefits from official documents released following German reunification in 1989.

Kellerhof is clear in his conclusions.  Van der Lubbe was the lone culprit, setting the fire himself, intending it to provide the spark for a communist rising against the Nazis. As he concludes, there is not a shred of evidence that the Nazis committed the crime, indeed it seems that Hitler initially feared that the fire would be a hindrance to him rather than a help, and it was Alfred Hugenberg, rather than Hitler, who first advocated clamping down on the Communists in response.

The case against the Nazis, Kellerhoff argues, is a confection of circumstantial evidence, misunderstandings, forgeries and politically motivated conspiracy theories, which merits little serious consideration.  The fact that the Nazis were the main beneficiaries from the crime - and Hitler's exploitation of the Fire was certainly a virtuoso performance - should not blind us to the fact that he and they were not the authors of it. Far from providing an explanation, 'Cui Bono', in this case, merely leads us down a blind alley of conspiracist nonsense, involving secret tunnels into the Reichstag, and a mystery team of SA arsonists, who were in turn bumped off during the Röhm Purge in 1934.

Most tellingly, I think, it seems that - in continuing to pin the crime on the Nazis - we are in danger of attributing far too much Machiavellian cunning to them and by extension to Hitler - and in so doing, we are guilty of a perverse mirror image of the totalitarian cult of personality.  If we assume that Hitler had all the strings in his hands in February 1933; that he and his minions were able to burn down a major public building in the German capital, pin the crime on an innocent communist, do away with the real culprits, and cover up the entire story - then surely we are ascribing talents to Hitler and the Nazis that were way beyond their real abilities.  A generation of Germans might have wished that Hitler really was possessed of such diabolical cunning as to be capable of such things, as it would - in part - absolve them of their complicity in following him, pied-piper-like, into the abyss.  But it is simply not plausible.

 Van der Lubbe, it seems, really was guilty of setting the Reichstag fire himself, unaided.  Perhaps now, with the benefit of 8 decades of hindsight, we can all accept that to be the most likely conclusion to this story.

- Roger Moorhouse: Historian and author, offering book reviews, comment and analysis on Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, World War Two and modern European History.

The Reichtags Fire

The truth is is that we will never know the absolute truth of what happened. Historians have debated this for decades and never really get any closer to the truth. Many say the Nazis started it, others say they had nothing to do with it.

The Reichstag Fire was started by a Dutch Anarchist named Marinus van der Lubbe, who snuck into the Reichstag on the night of the 27 February, 1933. This act really isn't all that surprising in hindsight. This was a period of considerable political violence across the country and one act of extreme vandalism should not necessarily be seen as "shocking", although the effects of the event were to be enormous.

Now, many have claimed that either A) Marinus van der Lubbe was not responsible, and that it was actually a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi party who may or may not have been acting under orders, or that B) Marinus van der Lubbe was actually affiliated with the Nazi party.

Now, both of these assertions are perhaps plausible, but they are not necessarily likely, or should be supported. The truth is that there is no evidence of either claim. There has never been a shred of credible evidence which points to either conclusion. As far as we know, and likely as far as we will ever know, Martin van der Lubbe acted on his own instincts and to his own political ends. Any other assertions are essentially conspiracy claims. While they may be plausible, they can not be legitimately entertained as possibilities from a historical standpoint, because there is no proof of either alternative possibility being true. Historians, can not change the facts just because it makes the story better.

While it might sound more interesting to argue that the Nazis planned the Reichstag fire and that they covertly hired a Dutch anarchist to carry it out, the lack of evidence pointing to this makes that claim entirely unreliable. Any claims to the contrary are ahistorical.

Who started the fire really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. The debate is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. What is important is to look at how the Nazi party reacted to the event. The fact that Martin van der Lubbe was unaffiliated with the Nazi party makes this story all the better. The Reichstag Fire and the subsequent passing of the Decree for the Protection of the People the very next day shows how cunning and ruthless the Nazi party was in their quest to power. They knew how to manipulate and control the volatile political culture which existed in Germany in the early 1930s and this is a far more important distinction to make.

The Nazi Party were not necessarily "Puppetmasters" who organized a chaotic burning of a governmental system, but rather master reactionaries who successfully seized an opportunity to wrestle more governmental and authoritative control from the Weimar government, and it is this which makes the story of the Reichstag fire all the more sinister and indeed all the more interesting.

Berlin, Germany · 28 February 1933

On this date in 1933, with the Reichstag (German parliament building) still smol­dering following the fire set by 24-year-old Dutch Com­munist Marinus van der Lubbe the day before, Ger­man Chancellor Adolf Hitler per­suaded 87-year-old Pre­si­dent Paul von Hinden­burg to sign the Reichs­tag Fire Edict. The emer­gency decree sus­pended key civil liberty sec­tions of Ger­many’s Wei­mar con­stitu­tion, among them the right to free expres­sion of opin­ion, in­cluding a free press, and free­dom of assem­bly and asso­ci­a­tion. The signa­ture of the ailing, senes­cent Hinden­burg quickly con­verted Ger­many from a par­lia­men­tary demo­cracy led by a would-be dic­ta­tor into an abso­lute total­i­tar­ian state. It happened so fast—in less than a month. With par­lia­men­tary elec­tions sched­uled for 5 March, five days away, Hitler, who had dis­solved parlia­ment two days after being named Chan­cellor on 30 Janu­ary, ordered the arrests of thou­sands of opposi­tion Com­munists, in­cluding the party’s head, and rank and file Social Demo­crats, whose leader­ship had already fled to the safety of the Czech capi­tal, Prague. Hitler’s para­military SA (Sturm­ab­teilung, or “Storm Detach­ment”) goons, nick­named “Brown­shirts,” wreaked havoc every­where they could, breaking into homes and busi­ness all across the coun­try and beating and tor­turing the vic­tims they dragged out and jailed. On 5 March Nazi organi­za­tions “moni­tored” polling places. Despite their best efforts to emas­cu­late and intim­i­date their oppo­nents, the Nazis failed to gain an ab­so­lute major­ity of the 39.6 mil­lion votes cast, gar­nering just under 44 per­cent to control 288 seats in the Reichs­tag; the Nazis needed the con­ser­vative Ger­man National Peo­ple’s Party, which had 52 seats as well as posts in Hitler’s coali­tion cabi­net, to govern the coun­try. To for­mally and legally place the whole power of govern­ment in his hands, Hitler on 23 March urged the Reichs­tag to enact and Hinden­burg to sign the En­abling Act (Er­mäch­tigungs­gesetz). The act, known formally as Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Nation, granted Hitler’s cabi­net the autho­rity to en­act laws with­out the partic­i­pa­tion of the Reichs­tag or his coali­tion part­ners. Thus using the tools of parlia­men­tary demo­cracy, Hitler gained un­restricted free­dom to ban all poli­tical parties except his own and to ter­rorize, arrest, beat, im­prison, torture, and kill any and all of his opponents.

  Burn - Reichstag - Burn
The Soviets in Berlin, April 1945 

On 27 February 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 28 February 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 5 March 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 againstscism. 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.

"On 27 February1933, 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."

A theses which can not convince every impartial historian, because it seems the product of dubious testimonies.

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 23 February 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 21 September 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 23 December 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 10 January1934, 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 24 December 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 27 February 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.

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 30 June 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", 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"

The Reichstag Fire
by Fritz Tobias
With an Introduction by A. J. P. Taylor
First American Edition 1964 English translation 1963 by Martin Secker & Warburg Limited First published in Germany under the title Der Reichstagsbrand, by G. Grotesche Verlagsbuchhandlung

Introduction by A. J. P. Taylor

The fire in the Debating Chamber of the Reichstag on 27 February 1933 has a place in all the history books. Historians, who find so much to disagree about, are for once in agreement, or were until the present book was published. National Socialists – Nazis for short – started the fire, we believed, in order to cause an anti-Communist panic in Germany and so to influence the general election, due on 5 March. The trick succeeded. The German electors took alarm. The Nazis got their majority, and Hitler was able to establish his dictatorship. The Reichstag fire not only explained the initial Nazi success. It also set the pattern for explanations of all Hitler’s later acts.

We saw at every stage – over rearmament, over Austria, over Czechoslovakia, over Poland – the same deliberate and conspiratorial cunning which had been first shown on 27 February 1933. Historians, writing about Nazi Germany, did not look closely at the events of that night. They took the central fact for granted: Nazis set fire to the Reichstag; and there was an end of it. Most historians were less sure how the Nazis did it. They used some equivocal phrase: ‘we do not know exactly what happened’; ‘the details are still to be revealed’ – something of that sort. Much evidence was in fact available: police reports, fire inspectors’ reports, large excerpts from the proceedings of the High Court at Leipzig, kept by Dr Sack, Torgler’s counsel.

Herr Tobias was the first to look at this evidence with an impartial eye. He took nothing for granted. He was not concerned to indict the Nazis, or for that matter to acquit them. He was that rare thing, a researcher for truth, out to find what happened. His book sticks closely to the events of 27 February and to the legal or sham-legal proceedings which followed.

Some knowledge of the political background may be useful. The republican constitution, created at Weimar in 1919, gave Germany an electoral system of proportional representation. No single party ever obtained an absolute majority in the Reichstag. A series of coalitions governed Germany between 1919 and 1930. Coalition broke down under the impact of the world depression. The Social Democrats refused to carry through deflation; their former associates insisted on it. Brüning, a member of the Centre (Roman Catholic) Party, became Chancellor and imposed deflation by emergency decrees, without possessing a majority in the Reichstag. Discontent mounted. Nazis and Communists fought in the streets. In May 1932 Brüning proposed to dissolve the private armies of these two parties by emergency decree. The elderly Field-Marshal Hindenburg, President since 1925, refused. He feared that conflict with the private armies would bring the real army into politics; and this he was determined to avoid. Brüning was dismissed. Papen, another member of the Centre, became Chancellor. He, too, relied on emergency decrees. He dissolved the Reichstag in the hope of winning wider support. His hope was not fulfilled. The Nazis won 37.3 per cent of the votes cast on 31 July – their highest vote in a free election – and 230 seats in the Reichstag. Papen tried to tempt Hitler with an offer of subordinate office. Hitler refused. Papen dissolved the Reichstag again. This time the Nazis did not do so well. On 6 November they received only 33 per cent of the vote and 196 seats. Once more Hitler was offered office. Once more he refused. Papen now proposed to prorogue the Reichstag and to govern solely by Presidential decree. The army leaders declared that they would be unable to maintain order. Papen resigned. Schleicher, Hindenburg’s military adviser, took his place. Schleicher tried to strengthen his government by negotiating with trade union officials and with a few Nazis who had lost faith in Hitler. The negotiations came to nothing. On 28 January 1933 he confessed to Hindenburg that he, too, would have to rule by emergency decree. Meanwhile Papen, still intimate with Hindenburg though out of office, had been negotiating more successfully with Hitler. Hitler agreed to join a coalition government of National Socialists and Nationalists. On 30 January he became Chancellor. This was not a seizure of power. Hitler was intrigued into power by respectable politicians of the old order – principally by Papen and also by more obscure advisers round Hindenburg. Papen had, he thought, taken Hitler prisoner. There were only three Nazis in a cabinet of eleven; the key posts of foreign minister and minister of defence were in the hands of non-political experts, loyal to Hindenburg; and Hitler was not to visit Hindenburg except in the company of Papen, the Vice-Chancellor. Nazis and Nationalists together did not have a majority. Hitler urged that yet another general election would give them a majority, and thus relieve Hindenburg from the embarrassment of issuing emergency decrees any longer. The constitutional system would be restored. This, after all, had been the object of making Hitler Chancellor. Once more the Reichstag was dissolved. The Nazis now reaped the advantage of being in the government. Göring, Hitler’s chief assistant, became head of the Prussian police; and the police naturally hesitated to act firmly against the Nazi ruffians in their brown shirts. Violence became one-sided. Communist and Social Democrat meetings were broken up. The Nazis made much of the Communist danger as an election cry. They alleged that the Communists were planning an armed rising. On 23 February the police, on Göring’s orders, raided Communist headquarters in order to discover evidence of this plan. They found none.

On 27 February the Reichstag went up in flames. Here, it seemed, was the decisive evidence against the Communists, provided perhaps by Heaven. Hitler announced the existence of a revolutionary conspiracy. Emergency decrees were passed, authorizing the arrest of dangerous politicians. Communists and others were sent to labour camps. As a matter of fact, the fire had singularly little effect on the general election of 5 March. The Social Democrats and Centre held their previous vote practically intact. The Communists had 70 deputies instead of 100. The National Socialist vote increased to 43.9 per cent. Even with the Nationalists, who also increased their vote a little, Hitler had only a bare majority in the Reichstag. This was not enough for him. Hitler wished to carry an Enabling Law which would empower him to govern by decrees and thus make him a dictator by constitutional process. This Law needed a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. The Communists were prevented from attending. The Social Democrats attended, and were solid against the Enabling Law. Decision rested with the 102 deputies of the Centre. They were lured by promises of security for Roman Catholic schools, and voted for the Law. Hitler obtained his two-thirds majority. He soon pushed aside the restrictions which Papen had tried to place upon him. He dislodged, or discredited, the Nationalist ministers; banned all parties in Germany except the National Socialist; and gradually engrossed all power in his own hands. The consequences for Germany and the world are known to us all. On a cool retrospect, the burning of the Reichstag occupies a comparatively small place in the story of Hitler’s rise to absolute power. He was Chancellor before the fire occurred; it did not much affect the electors; and they did not give him the crushing majority which he needed. The passing of the Enabling Law, not the general election, was the moment of decision. But these were not cool days.

A democratic system was being destroyed in the full glare of publicity. Berlin was thronged with newspaper correspondents from foreign countries, eager for stories. With nerves on edge, everyone expected conspiracies by everyone else. The fire at the Reichstag supplied the most dramatic story of a dramatic time. It was naturally built up beyond its merits. For instance, we talk to this day as though the entire Reichstag, a great complex of rooms and building, was destroyed. In fact, only the Debating Chamber was burnt out; and the burning of a Chamber, with wooden panels, curtains dry with age, and a glass dome to provide a natural draught, was not surprising. Many other similar halls have burnt in an equally short space of time, from the old House of Commons in 1834 to the Vienna Stock Exchange a few years ago. A prosaic explanation of this kind did not suit the spirit of the time. People wanted drama; and there had to be drama. There was, on the surface, no great mystery about the burning of the Reichstag. An incendiary was discovered: van der Lubbe, a young Dutchman. He gave a coherent account of his activities. This account made sense both to the police officers who examined him and to the fire chiefs who handled the fire. It did not suit either the Nazis or their opponents that van der Lubbe should have started the fire alone. Hitler declared, from the first moment, that the Communists had set fire to the Reichstag. They, knowing that they had not, returned the compliment and condemned the fire as a Nazi trick. Thus both sides, far from wanting to find the truth about the fire, set out on a search for van der Lubbe’s accomplices.

The German authorities arrested Torgler, leader of the Communists in the Reichstag, and three Bulgarian Communists. One of them, Dimitrov, was chief European representative of the Communist International, though the Germans did not know this. The four men were accused, along with van der Lubbe, before the High Court at Leipzig. The prosecution was not interested in establishing the guilt of van der Lubbe. This was both self-evident and unimportant. The prosecution was after the four Communists. It was essential to demonstrate that van der Lubbe could not have acted alone. Most of the evidence was directed to this point. It convinced the Court, and has continued to convince most of those who examined the case later. Van der Lubbe, everyone decided, had accomplices. The prosecution, however, failed to establish that the accomplices were the four men in the dock. All four were acquitted. Van der Lubbe was convicted, and executed by virtue of a special law, made retrospective for his case. His capital crime was not to have set fire to the Reichstag, but to have had accomplices in doing so. The opponents of the Nazis outside Germany were quick to point the moral. Everyone now agreed that van der Lubbe had accomplices. The accomplices had not been found, despite all the labours of the German criminal police and the German High Court. From this it clearly seemed to follow that the accomplices were not being sought in the right place. They were, in fact, the Nazis themselves. Here was a splendid opportunity for anti-Nazi propaganda.

Communist exiles used it to the full. They organized a countertrial in London, and provided evidence for it as lavishly as Stalin did for the great ‘purge’ trials in Russia later. Many of those who manufactured the evidence did so in good faith. They argued that the Nazis were immeasurably wicked (which they were) and that they had set fire to the Reichstag. They must have done it in a certain way; and the evidence before the counter-trial, though actually conjecture not fact, merely showed what this way was. In those days many of us were passionately anti-Nazi, and were ready to believe any evil of them. We had, as yet, little experience of how the Communists manufactured evidence when it suited their purpose. Men of good will accepted the verdict of the counter-trial; and though they were later disillusioned by the ‘purges’, by the post-war trials in eastern Europe, or by the Hungarian rising in 1956, some are reluctant to admit that they were taken for a ride by the Communists as early as 1933. Much of the evidence accepted by the counter-trial has now been discredited. Everyone, for instance, now recognizes the Oberfohren Memorandum and the confession of Karl Ernst, both discussed in detail by Herr Tobias, as Communist forgeries. The central argument remains unassailed: van der Lubbe could not have set fire to the Reichstag alone. Yet the proof of this rests mainly on the evidence placed before the Leipzig High Court. The Nazis unwittingly convicted themselves; and anyone who believes in their guilt is relying on evidence which the Nazis provided – or manufactured. Such is the background for this book.

Herr Tobias has not produced new evidence. He has merely looked again at the evidence which always existed. His examination involves much detail. This is essential if we are to judge what the evidence is worth. He has had to follow many false trails, and it is exasperating when these lead to a dead end. In the original German edition, he ran after still more false trails. Some of these have been left out, in order to spare the English reader. They do not, in my judgement, affect the general picture. I do not know Herr Tobias. He was never a Nazi; nor was his book written to please the present authorities in Germany – very much the contrary. It was written in an endeavour, whether mistaken or not, to discover the truth. In my opinion, he has succeeded, so far as anyone can succeed with the evidence we have at present. The reader will, I hope, believe me when I say that I have no desire to ‘acquit’ the Nazis. I welcome the investigations by Herr Tobias, solely because their conclusions seem to me right. The case against the Nazis rested on two arguments or rather assumptions: the first that van der Lubbe was a physical degenerate who was incapable of starting the fires alone; the second that it was impossible, in any case, for the fires to have been started by a single man. Herr Tobias has shaken both these assumptions.

He shows that van der Lubbe was quick-witted, ingenious, and physically active. His defective eyesight was balanced, as often happens, by sensitivity in other ways. He described precisely how he had set fire to the Reichstag; and his description tallied with the evidence. The police took him through the Reichstag with a stop-watch. He covered the ground at exactly the right times. Herr Tobias also provides a convincing explanation of van der Lubbe’s motives and of his later behaviour. Van der Lubbe despaired at the lack of fight shown by the Communists and other opponents of Hitler. He wished to give a signal of revolt. When his gesture failed, when indeed it helped to consolidate Hitler’s dictatorship, he fell into despair. There is a cry of human tragedy in his repeated declaration to the High Court: ‘I did it alone. I was there. I know.’ No one believed him. Herr Tobias shows too that the fires were not beyond the capacity of a single man. The opinion of the ‘experts’ against this rested on conjecture, not evidence. Thus, there is good ground for believing that van der Lubbe did it all alone, exactly as he claimed.

We can go further. There is some evidence, though naturally more conjectural, that the Nazis did not do it. If they in fact started the fire, why did they so strikingly fail to provide any evidence against the Communists or even that van der Lubbe had accomplices? The Nazi leaders certainly behaved as though they were surprised when they arrived at the scene of the fire. Indeed everyone acknowledges that Hitler had no previous knowledge of the fire, and was genuinely surprised. Yet it was his spontaneous reaction in accusing the Communists which gave the Reichstag fire political significance so far as it had any. Hence even the believers in Nazi guilt must admit that Hitler’s method was to grab at opportunities as they occurred, not to manufacture them beforehand. Again, there has been total failure to show how the Nazis were associated with the fire. The strongest point in Herr Tobias’s book is perhaps the firm and final demonstration that neither the Nazis nor anyone else could have come through the famous ‘tunnel’ from Göring’s house. Use of this tunnel by the Nazis was an ingenious Communist speculation, plausible only to those who knew nothing of the physical obstacles which the tunnel and its many locked doors provided. We are thus left with two conclusions.

There is no firm evidence that the Nazis had anything to do with the fire. There is much evidence that van der Lubbe did it alone, as he claimed. Of course new evidence may turn up, though this is unlikely after thirty years. The full records of the proceedings before the High Court are locked away at Potsdam under Communist control. They would surely have been released before now if they had helped to convict the Nazis. I have an uneasy feeling that van der Lubbe talked about his intentions beforehand and that he may have been egged on by Nazi companions. This does not imply that the Nazi leaders knew anything of it, and it makes no difference to the story.

Should this book have been written and published at all? Many people have been indignant at any so-called attempt to ‘acquit’ the Nazis of any charge, true or false. It is easy to understand why people have been indignant in Germany. Nazi guilt means innocence for everyone else. In particular, present German Ministers, who, as members of the Centre, voted for the Enabling Law in 1933, can plead that they were cheated by Hitler into believing in a Communist danger. But why should people mind in England? They are reluctant, I suppose, to confess that they were taken in the other way round – by the Communists, not by Hitler. Writers and lecturers on German history are annoyed at having to change their texts or their lecture-notes. I do not sympathize with them. As a scholar, I am just as pleased at being proved wrong as at being proved right. The essential thing is to acknowledge one’s mistakes. On the Reichstag fire I was as wrong as everyone else; and I am grateful to Herr Tobias for putting me right. The Nazi (and Communist) method is to stick to every charge against one’s opponents, whether it be true or false. We sink to their level if we copy their methods. Every act of fair judgement against the Nazis – every ‘acquittal’ of them if you like – is a triumph for the free spirit.

Herr Tobias has performed a great service for all those who believe in truly free inquiry. An essay by Sir Lewis Namier on Open Diplomacy opens with the words: ‘There would be little to say on this subject, were it not for the nonsense which has been talked about it.’ This is true of many topics besides Open Diplomacy. It is true of the fire at the Reichstag. Taken by itself, merely as a fire, there is little to say about it. An unbalanced Dutch boy started the fire all alone, much as Martin set fire to York Minster in 1829. Martin wanted to stop the organ buzzing. Van der Lubbe wanted to give the signal for a rising against the Nazis. Both were disappointed. The organ of York Minster still plays. Not a single German responded to van der Lubbe’s call. But then everyone talked nonsense. The Nazis accused the Communists of starting the fire. Communists and others accused the Nazis. The nonsense talked about the fire illuminates, perhaps better than anything else, the political climate of the nineteen-thirties. It illuminates Nazi methods and Nazi incompetence. It illuminates Communist methods and, by comparison at any rate, their competence – particularly their competence in manufacturing legends which deceived high-minded people all over the world. The legends about the Reichstag fire became a cardinal part of recent history. Like all legends, they should be demolished; and Herr Tobias has gone a long way towards demolishing them.

Fire in the Reichstag
By  Peter Wainwright
1981-07-01

By the early 1930s, the situation in Germany was becoming highly explosive. A third of the workers were unemployed, and democracy was on the verge of collapse. The Communists saw in this their best opportunity to seize power since their abortive revolution in 1918. A revolution was clearly in the offing, but despite the support of a few million voters and the Soviet Union, power seemed to be slipping from the Marxist grip.

The German people were turning to a new kind of socialism -National Socialism - and even some of the Communists were looking to Adolf Hitler for their salvation.

The Red response to this situation was one of extreme violence. One notable victim was the 21-year old poet and voluntary social worker Horst Wessel, who was murdered in 1930 after writing a stirring marching song for his Brown Shirt comrades. Two years later, as the General Election of July 1932 loomed nearer, the Reds abandoned all pretence of debate and discussion. Bloody terror became the order of the day.

In the six week period before the election there were more than 450 political riots in Prussia alone. In July, 38 Nazis and 30 Communists were killed. But the Red Terror failed. In the election, the Nazis more than doubled their number of seats in the Reichstag, and became the largest party; and in January 1933 President Hindenburg bowed to the inevitable and asked Adolf Hitler to lead a coalition government. The general election in the March of that year resulted in a clear victory for the Nazis and their nationalist allies.

Red fury now knew no bounds. In the campaign of violence and illegality that followed, the Union of Red Fighters openly called on their followers to disarm the SA and SS, while a few days later an official Communist publication, Red Sailor, urged: "Workers to the Barricades: forward to victory: fresh bullets in your guns: draw the pin of the hand grenades." A bloody revolution seemed imminent. A signal for its commencement was anxiously awaited, and it appeared to come on 27 February when the Reichstag building in Berlin was set on fire.

A Dutch communist, van der Lubbe, was arrested near the scene, and subsequently he and four other suspects, including Torgler, the leader of the communist group in the Reichstag, were put on trial. The official report of the provisional inquiry showed that the Red group had had "a remarkable number of party meetings in the Reichstag of late, without any reason which could be traced." At Liebknechthaus (the Communist HQ named after a leader of the abortive 1918 revolution), the authorities found lists of a large number of people who were to have been killed or arrested.

Van der Lubbe admitted that he had fired the building and that it was meant to be a signal for revolution. But, he claimed, contrary to expert testimony at the trial, that he had destroyed the building single handed. He stuck to his story, but elsewhere the Reds were spreading the lie that the fire had been started by the Nazis themselves, and that van der Lubbe was a degenerate half-wit and homosexual prostitute planted on the scene as a "fall guy."

Just two days after the fire the "Daily Worker" (forerunner of the "Morning Star") official organ of the British Communist Party, carried the banner headline "Nazis burn down the German parliament," and then went on to state that the "Fascists" had accused the Communist Party of having done it "without a shred of evidence."

Thus was born one of the great myths of modern history that the Nazis set fire to their own Parliament to provide an excuse for curbing the activities of the Communists. It might be said that some plausibility was given to the myth by the action of President Hindenburg (who was not a Nazi) on the day after the fire.

Fearing that another Communist revolution had started, he declared martial law and suppressed Marxist propaganda in Prussia. More substance was provided for the myth when the old Weimar Constitution was changed by the passing of the Enabling Act, which has been falsely represented as giving dictatorial powers to Hitler.

The act had nothing to do with the Reichstag fire, but was a necessary part of the Government's program for overcoming the grave social and economic crisis in Germany. Nonetheless, such actions provided hooks on which the anti-Nazi media and politicians could hang their multi-colored coat of lies and misrepresentation which came to be seriously accepted as authentic history.

The trial of van der Lubbe and the other suspects should have dispelled any suspicion of Nazi guilt. It was a scrupulously fair trial which resulted in the acquittal of all the defendants except van der Lubbe himself.

Anti-Nazi propagandists, however, were far from being dismayed. They turned their attention on a Brown Book of alleged evidence compiled by communist exiles, and a farcical "counter-trial" which they staged in London which, not surprisingly, found the Nazis guilty.

According to the Brown Book, a group of Nazis entered the Reichstag via a tunnel which was connected to the residence of Herman Göring, President of the Reichstag. They were supposed to have gained entry at 8.40pm, set the building on fire and then left, after pushing the half-wit Van der Lubbe into the building just after 9pm. The police arrived on the scene at 9.22pm. Evidence was given at the "counter-trial" by witnesses, purporting to be Nazis seeking repentance, that they were led by a Brown Shirt named Heines. It was ascertained later that Heines was making a speech elsewhere at the time of the fire.

Another confession was supposedly made by Karl Ernst, then chief of the Brown Shirts in Berlin. Apart from the fact that this confession did not turn up until after Ernst's death, it slipped up on one vital point. As with the other "confessions," it alleged that the Nazi arsonists were in the Reichstag from 8.40pm until 9.30pm. But at 8.45pm, a postman entered the building to collect the mail, and left again at 8.55pm without seeing anything out of the ordinary or noticing the smell of gasoline or other fire raising substances.

The full truth is not yet known, but sound basic facts – certainly more than enough to discredit allegations of Nazi responsibility were brought to light in Britain by the liberal historian Professor A. J. P. Taylor, who admits that he had accepted the myth unquestioningly "without looking at the evidence."

Later, however, writing on 'Who burnt the Reichstag' in the August 1960 issue of the specialist magazine "History Today", Taylor, working largely on evidence provided by Fritz Tobias, an anti-Nazi German civil servant, and which had been published earlier in Der Spiegel, points out that the Nazis made no attempt to manufacture evidence against the Communists -which seems a strange omission if, as alleged, the whole affair was staged to justify the suppression of the Communists.

As for the counter-trial, one of the witnesses there was "muffled to the eyes" according to Taylor, who wryly adds: "This was a wise precaution: he was in fact a well-known communist and unmistakably Jewish."

When considering the facts, it seems incredible that the myth of Nazi responsibility for firing the Reichstag could ever have been accepted at all. Yet it was, and by reputable historians such as Alan Bullock, author of "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny", and Anthony Sutton, author of "Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler". One wonders what other mythical versions of historical incidents have been accepted by historians and others "without looking at the evidence."

Myths, Wartime Propaganda and the Burning of the Reichstag
Who Set the Reichstag Fire?
By Fred Blahut
From "The Barnes Review" January, 1996.

If the burning of the German Reichstag brought the National Socialists to power in 1933, were the Nazis responsible for the arson? If not, who was?

By 1933, Germany was ripe for another revolution. The Moscow-backed communist revolutions of 1919 had been put down at awful cost. And then the Allies imposed "reparations" that stripped the country of its ability to employ its workers and feed its people, including a British-engineered blockade that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Germans by starvation.

The worldwide depression of 1929 hit the country, still staggering under the yoke of the Treaty of Versailles, in the gut. Food was scarce. Jobs were disappearing. Those who had jobs earned money that was close to worthless.

It was clear that the centrist government of President Paul von Hindenburg and Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, under extreme pressure from both the left and the right, could not hold. Fearing civil war, Hindenburg dismissed Bruning and in January of 1933 appointed Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, as chancellor, even though Hitler had no absolute majority in the lower chamber of the German Parliament-the Reichstag.

And then, on the night of February 27, the Reichstag building burned.

It is important to note that, following the armistice of 1918, British Prime Minister Lloyd George had promised the British voters "to squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeaked." Germany had been stripped of its industry, its coal reserves in the Saar and the manufacturing capacities of Alsace-Lorraine.

The German Navy and merchant fleet had been seized; export barriers had been established for German products while free trade was imposed on imports produced by the Allies.

According to Leon Degrelle: "Germany was experiencing near-famine conditions. It was at this moment the Allies decided to confiscate a substantial part of what was left of Germany's livestock." ("Hitler: Born at Versailles"; Institute for Historical Review, 1987.)

Thomas Lamont, the American representative of the Allied powers "overseeing" Germany, was quoted: "The Germans were made to deliver cattle, horses, sheep, goats etc .... A strong protest came from Germany when dairy cows were taken to France and Belgium, thus depriving German children of milk."

According to Degrelle, "The question was now: Who was going to break the chains?

"Germany looked for an avenger to smash the Treaty of Vengeance. The avenger could not belong to the conventional right and left wings of German politics or any other Establishment entities, whether financial, military or religious."

In 1925, following the death of German President Friedrich Ebert, Hindenburg, a hero of World War I, was persuaded to run for president. He won easily. But, aging and ill, Hindenburg was not the national leader to bring Germany back from the abyss.

Prior to Hitler's appointment, the Reichstag had been suspended several times with rule by presidential decree. Neither the left nor the right believed it was Hindenburg himself who was running the country, which staggered on ineffectually. By 1933, Hindenburg had become senile.

On this point, European newsman Alec de Montmorency tells a story that was making the rounds in the Paris clubs frequented by journalists. Hindenburg, the story goes, asked one of his close aides in early 1933: "Who is that young man with a mustache who keeps bringing me papers to sign?"

Immediately after Hitler's appointment, the Reichstag was dissolved and new elections set for March 5. A violent election campaign ensued.

On February 24, the police raided Communist Party headquarters. It was announced that they had discovered plans for a new communist revolution. But they either didn't discover what they said that they had, or the evidence, for unknown reasons, was suppressed, because such documentation was never made public.

Then came the Reichstag fire. Hitler immediately blamed the communists. Hindenburg proclaimed a state of emergency and issued decrees suspending freedom of speech and assembly. Thanks to the "Red scare," the National Socialists and their allies, the German Nationalists, won a bare majority in the general election of March 5.

Shortly thereafter, first the Communist Party, and then all other parties except the National Socialist,were made illegal. The burning of the Reichstag was the spark that set the country ablaze. If, then, the fire was what catapulted Hitler to power, is it not reasonable to assume that the National Socialists had a hand in it? That was the consensus of propaganda in the United States, France and Great Britain.

The National Socialists blamed the communists, and tried to establish the guilt of Communist Party leaders in a trial at the High Court at Leipzig. They failed.

That led to the generally accepted theory that the National Socialists themselves torched the building. This version has been generally accepted. It appears in most textbooks and many reputable historians repeat it. According to A.J.P. Taylor in History Today, "I myself accepted it unquestioningly, without looking at the evidence."

But someone did look at the evidence: A retired civil servant-and anti-Nazi named Fritz Tobias. He began his project, it is reported, with the idea of settling once and for all the fact that the Nazis had been responsible for the fire. But that's not what he discovered. The results of his investigation were serialized in the German weekly Der Spiegel in 1950.

Here's the story as detailed by Tobias.

At just about 9 pm on February 27, a theology student -later a lecturer at Bremen-named Hans Floter was on his way home after a day of research and study at the library. As he crossed the open space in front of the Reichstag, he heard the sound of breaking glass. He looked up and saw someone climbing into the building through a window on the first floor. The building was otherwise deserted except for a night watchman who apparently did not hear the breaking glass.

Floter ran to the comer and found a policeman. "Someone is breaking into the Reichstag," he reported. The two men ran back to the building. Through the window they saw a shadowy, unidentifiable figure and something more ominous-flames. It was 9:03 pm. Floter, having done his duty, went home. He had not yet had supper and was hungry.

At this point, another passer-by joined the policeman, a young printer called Thaler, who was, incidentally, a Social Democrat, and definitely no supporter of the National Socialists. Thaler shouted: "Shoot, man, shoot." The policeman fired his revolver into the building and the shadowy figure disappeared.

The policeman ran to the nearest police post and gave the alarm. The time recorded was 9:15 pm. Within minutes police backup arrived at the Reichstag, At 9:22, a police officer tried to enter the Debating Chamber. He was driven back by the flames. At 9:27, the police discovered and arrested a half-naked young man. He was a Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe.

Meanwhile, the fire brigade had also been alerted. The first report is recorded at 9:13. The first engine reached the Reichstag at 9:18. But the firemen had problems entering the building to fight the blaze. Only one side door was kept unlocked after 8 pm. The firemen, not knowing this, went to the wrong door.

Gaining entrance, the firemen fought the first fires they came to-small blazes in the corridors, it turns out, and not the main fire. Eventually, the full strength of the Berlin fire brigade was mobilized, a force of some 60 engines. The time was 9:42. But by then, the building was beyond help.

Seen as evidence of Nazi involvement in the blaze was the fact that across the street from the Reichstag building was the residence-sometimes called a palace-of its president. The National Socialists being in charge of the legislative body, the president of the Reichstag on 27 February 1933 was Nazi leader Hermann Göring. But Göring had not yet moved in.

The building was unoccupied except for an apartment on the top floor which Göring had lent to "Putzi" Hanftstängl, Hitler's foreign press chief. Hearing a commotion, Hanftstaengl looked out the window and saw the Reichstag burning. He knew that Hitler and Josef Göbbels were at a party nearby. He phoned Göbbels, who thought Hanftstängel was playing some sort of practical joke and hung up. Hanftstängel called back. Göbbels checked with the police and found the report was true.

Within a few minutes he, Hitler and a large group of National Socialists who had been at the party arrived at the Reichstag. An English journalist, Sefton Delmer, managed to join the crowd. Hitler, he reported, was very upset certainly not the demeanor of a man responsible for the action. "This is a communist plot, the signal for an uprising," Delmer reported Hitler yelling to his supporters. "Every communist official must be shot. The communist members [of the Reichstag] must be hanged."

Van der Lubbe, meanwhile, had been taken to the nearest police station. He was interrogated until 3 am of February 28. He was allowed to sleep for a few hours, awakened, given breakfast and, at 8 am, the questioning resumed. He gave clear, coherent answers. He described how he had entered the Reichstag and started a series of fires, even using some of his clothing to help the blazes get going.

The police, thoroughly and methodically, checked his story. They retraced his route through the Reichstag with a stopwatch and determined that the timing was correct for his entrance through a window to the time of his arrest. Van der Lubbe was clear about his motive. He had hoped that the entire German people would protest against the Nazi government. When this did not happen, he determined that he would protest individually.

Although the burning of the Reichstag was certainly a signal for revolt-he called it a "beacon" -he had given the signal alone, he insisted. He denied that he had any associates or fellow plotters. He said he knew no Nazis. He was not a member of the Communist Party. He was a socialist, more politically in tune with the left wing of the centrist government.

Van der Lubbe proved a willing witness against himself. He traced his movement for police during the weeks prior to the arson. He had drifted across Germany, apparently searching for anti-Nazi sentiment and finding nothing approaching the mass revolt he had hoped for. He even told police where he had purchased "fire-starter," a petroleum-based liquid used, as its name implies, to start fires, and matches. The police checked his story. Everything he said proved to be correct.

The police officials conducting the investigation concluded that van der Lubbe was deranged-but above average in intelligence, with an exceptionally accurate sense of place and direction. He knew where he had been and what he had been doing and remembered even small details of his wanderings, purchases and arson.

His interrogators were experienced men, professionals with no political connections. They became convinced that he was telling the truth and that he had set the fire at the Reichstag all by himself, with no outside help or even encouragement. Firemen who had been at the scene agreed that the sequence of arson events detailed by van der Lubbe matched their investigation results.

That conclusion didn't sit well with Hitler and the upper cadre of the National Socialists, locked in a bitter battle with the communists to gain control of the Reichstag. They had committed themselves to the proposition that the fire was a communist plot. Whether or not they believed this, it was the story that had to be sold to the German public if they were to defeat the communists at the polls.

Van der Lubbe and four others were tried for the arson; a man named Torgler, the leader of the communist bloc in the Reichstag, and three Bulgarian communists including Georgi Dimitrov.

Van der Lubbe's guilt was beyond question. He had been found in the Reichstag and he admitted starting the fires. But that wasn't what was worrying the Nazis. Everyone accepted van der Lubbe's guilt. It was the communists the Nazis wanted convicted.

A number of "expert" witnesses were produced-with Nazi help-by the prosecution with the intention of proving that the fire could not have been started by one man. But van der Lubbe proved to be the best witness for the other defendants. Testifying for hours, he told the judges that it was he, and he alone, who was responsible. He was quoted: "I was there and they [the other four defendants] were not. I know how it was done because 1did it."

The High Court arrived at a complex verdict. First, van der Lubbe was found guilty. He was subsequently executed. (Arson was not a crime punishable by death. But Hitler managed to shove through a law to that effect and make its ramifications retroactive, a decision that would come back to haunt him.)

The other four defendants were found innocent. But, the court agreed with the Nazi-provided "expert" witnesses that the Dutchman could not have done it alone and that, therefore, the Reichstag had been torched by van der Lubbe and "persons unknown."

The Nazis had been hoist by their own petard. If van der Lubbe had accomplices, and the accomplices were not communists, who were they? The implication was that the accomplices must have been National Socialists, a point made repeatedly in court by Dimitrov, and echoed by the Establishment media throughout the Western world.

(Dimitrov, incidentally, fled Germany following the trial to the USSR where he rose in the ranks of Soviet officialdom and later returned to Bulgaria to take over leadership of the communist government there.)

The propaganda possibilities of the High Court decision were not lost on the communists. Enter a man named Willi Münzenberg, a German expatriate communist popular with the media and the pro-communists in the West, particularly Great Britain. The communists published what was called the Brown Book about the fire, filled with alleged evidence of National Socialist complicity in the arson. That the communist evidence of Nazi involvement was no more convincing than the Nazis' evidence of communist complicity was lost on the popular press.

Subsequently, the communists staged a counter-trial in London that, not unexpectedly, brought in a guilty verdict against the Nazis. Considered vital evidence in the counter-trial was the existence of a tunnel between Goering's residence and the Reichstag which carried electric and telephone cables and pipes for central heating.

According to the communists, a group of Brown Shirts had used the tunnel to enter the Reichstag and soaked the curtains and woodwork with a flammable liquid which caught fire when van der Lubbe struck the match or, alternately, they set the fire themselves. According to the latter version, when all was ready, van der Lubbe was pushed through the window into the Reichstag by an unnamed accomplice of the Brown Shirts, there to be found and arrested.

The Brown Book also alleged that, far from being an intelligent Socialist, van der Lubbe was a degenerate half-wit and a homosexual prostitute, kept by Brown Shirt leader Ernst Röhm. This was the story accepted by the Western press in 1933 and, subsequently, historians. It became something "everyone knows," without anyone actually examining the facts.

There were allegations that the fire brigades were deliberately delayed by the Nazis. But the record books of the aforementioned brigades disprove this. And, almost all history books say the records of van der Lubbe's interrogation by the police had mysteriously disappeared. But again, that isn't true. Tobias found them where they were supposed to be-in the office where they had always been in - eight copies.

Van der Lubbe, having been characterized by the Nazis as a communist dupe, was treated even more harshly by the communists. Included in the Brown Book is a statement by a Dutch friend of the arsonist. One sentence reads: "I often spent a night in the same bed with him." This was used by the communists as proof of his homosexuality. But, according to Taylor, the sentence originally went on: " ... without observing any homosexual tendencies in him."

Taylor goes on to point out that all the stories about van der Lubbe's bad upbringing, about his disreputable family and his lack of friends "were in fact lies; communist forgeries."

The most vital evidence produced by the communists was the tunnel and the allegation that it had been used by the Brown Shirts. This, the communists alleged, had been revealed by repentant Brown Shirts to communists in Paris. One alleged Brown Shirt appeared at the counter-trial with a muffler wrapped around his face to conceal his identity. It was a wise precaution, according to Taylor, because the witness "was, in fact, a well-known communist and unmistakably Jewish."

Another confession supposedly came from one Karl Ernst, Brown Shirt leader in Berlin. Conveniently, the "confession" turned up after Ernst was dead, killed in the purge of June 30, 1934. Even more convenient, Ernst cleared up any items in the earlier communist versions of the arson where inaccuracies had been proven. But one point Ernst got wrong.

His post-mortem "confession" agreed with other "confessions" that the Brown Shirts entered the Reichstag at 8:49 pm. 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) were unaware of one item in the Reichstag routine. At 8:45 pm, a postman came through the side door to collect the deputies' mail.

On February 27, he entered as usual, walked through the deserted building and left at 8:55 pm. He found nothing out of the ordinary-no shadowy figures, no smell of flammable liquid. In fact, the postman disproves the "accomplices" theory, no matter who those accomplices were alleged to have been, because of the time sequences.

And then there is the small fact overlooked by historians-that when Göering arrived at the Reichstag at 9:35 pm, having been alerted by his friend, he immediately thought entrance might have been gained through the tunnel. He was quoted: "They [the arsonists] must have come through the tunnel." He immediately went off with several policemen - not Nazis-to examine it. They found the doors at either end securely locked.

Would Göring have called for a search of the tunnel if he or his compatriots had been responsible for the fire? Hardly likely. He and the police might have caught the conspirators exiting on the Göring residence side.

In non-ideological retrospect, the same lack of evidence that exonerates the communists serves to also exonerate the National Socialists. If the Nazis had set fire to the Reichstag they would have manufactured evidence against the communists, just as the communists manufactured evidence against the Nazis in the Brown Book and the counter-trial.

The Brown Book was not intended to be closely examined. If it achieved its propaganda purpose-which it did, in the UK and the United States, at least- Munzenberg and his associates were satisfied.

Here is what can be determined from the facts that can be proved. No one came through the tunnel. There was no other way to enter the Reichstag, except past the night watchman or by breaking the window. Only van der Lubbe broke a window. Those who want to stick to the communist version, although they admit they can't prove how the Nazis got into the Reichstag, point to the trial testimony that van der Lubbe had to have had help.

But this evidence is the most unreliable of all. The most emphatic "expert" was, according to Taylor, "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. But no policeman or fireman at the scene noticed any smell except smoke-no "fluid"; not even gasoline.

How could van der Lubbe have set the fire himself? These old, grandiose buildings were fires waiting to happen. There were heavy, dusty curtains everywhere; wooden paneling, high ceilings, drafts under the doors; everything capable of supporting a fire.

In 1834, the Houses of Parliament at Westminster in the UK were entirely destroyed by fire, Simply by a stove pipe becoming too hot. If this is too "historical" for today's reader, in 1956, the Vienna Stock Exchange was gutted by fire as the result of one smoldering cigarette in a wastepaper basket. Van der Lubbe had over 20 minutes to start fires; more than enough time.

One point: the postman left the building at 8:55 pm. How did van der Lubbe know it was safe to break in? He couldn't have; it was a lucky break, a coincidence. In any event, Hitler was well known for his penchant to improvise and it is obvious that is what he did while watching the Reichstag burn. Here was his chance to demonize the communists to his own advantage. He couldn't have known the outcome of that decision.

That van der Lubbe was guilty is beyond question. There is more evidence to acquit both the communists and the National Socialists of complicity than evidence to convict either group. But Germany lost the war and the communists won; and the winners write the history books.

Bibliography
 
• Davidson, Michael worth, MA, Editor. "Hitler Soars to Power." When, Where, Why & How It Happened. Readers Digest Association limited, London, New York, Sydney, Cape Town, Montreal, 1995.
•Degrelle, Gen. Leon. "Hitler: Born at Versailles": lnstitute for Historical Review, Torrance, California, 1987.
•Degrelle, Gen. Leon. "Hitler: Democrat". Unpublished manuscript.
•Montmorency, Alec de. Interview by the author, November, 1995.
•Taylor, A.J.P. "Who Burned the Reichstag?" History Today, London, June, 1956.


Fred Blahut has been a writer and editor for more than 30 years and currently is managing editor of The SPOTLIGHT and assistant editor of TBR.

In the over 80 years since the Reichstag fire, and in the over 50 years since the publication of Fritz Tobias' book,  "The Reichstag Fire", published in English in 1964, not one shred of credible evidence has ever been found indicating that Marinus van de Lubbe did not, in fact, act alone, exactly as he claimed, and as the National Socialists implicitly admitted by acquitting all the other defendants.

A newer publication, available only in German, by the same author in collaboration with a number of other respected German historians, is "Reichstagbrand - Aufklärung einer historischen Legende" [Reichstag Fire: Explanation of an Historical Legend] (by Backes, Uwe / Jansse, Karl-Heinz / Jesse, Eckhard / Köhler, Henning / Mommsen, Hans / Tobias, Fritz); same conclusion.)

"Documentary proof" that the Nazis burnt the Reichstag consists of "The Voice of Destruction", the famous forgery and fake by Hermann Rauschning, and a single Nuremberg "affidavit" by General Halder, saying that Göring went through a tunnel and burned the place. This is impossible, totally impossible. It is always implied that the tunnel was a secret, and that the purpose of the tunnel was something very sinister. It conveyed heating pipes. It was locked with 5 doors, there were only 5 keys, kept in 5 separate locked cabinets, and they were all there after the fire. Plus the floor of the tunnel was very uneven, and was covered with iron plates that made so much noise when anyone walked on them that it could be heard all over the Reichstag, which was full of guards all night. Van der Lubbe climbed up a scaffolding. He was spotted by night watchmen almost immediately after climbing through the window and in fact he was shot at from the street. He was pursued by guards through the plenum while setting most of his fires. His "accomplices" did not exit the tunnel, they did not climb out the windows, and they did not leave through any of the entrances. No one saw them. Where did they go?

The Nazis aquitted the other defendants, but then claimed that there were other arsonists "anyway", without ever explaining where the hell they came from or where they went. All the fires set in the restaurant went out immediately. The fires in the plenum destroyed the whole central part of the building very quickly, because the glass dome cracked, creating an updraft. Any fireplace technician can tell you that with a properly functioning chimney with a good updraft, the fire will burn until all fuel is exhausted. 
 
The purpose of the heating pipes was to convey heating pipes from the boiler house into the building, to avoid fire. It is always insinuated that the tunnel was built or dug secretly simply to burn the Reichstag. During the trial, the Nazis sent a party of men through the tunnel in carpet slippers, and they made so much noise that any idea of use of the tunnel for the purpose of setting the fire was abandoned. They bungled very badly. All the evidence indicated no conspiracy, so they decided there was a conspiracy anyway, without any evidence. In this case the Nazis were very stupid, incredibly so.

Van der Lubbe was an extraordinary person, not at all an idiot or half-witted tramp. On the contrary,  he was extremely intelligent. He was also an experienced arsonist, having successfully set fire to 3 government offices in Berlin that week. There's a lot more but it's lengthy and complicated.

Halder was one of a whole group of anti-German traitors for many years. Blaskowitz, Halder, Weizenäcker, Canaris, and another one, Fritsch, who got fired right before the war, falsely accused of marrying a prostitute, were all traitors. Canaris got caught, of course. The British said, we don't need a Secret Service, the Germans come to us in droves and tell us everything.

 Anyway van der Lubbe was an extremely interesting person, extremely intelligent, with a near photographic memory for some things. Absolutely fearless, very athletic and a very strong swimmer. Somebody offered a cash prize to the first Dutch citizen to swim the English channel, and he was planning to attempt it. He moved someplace where he could swim in the sea every day and actually swam a quite considerable distance along the Dutch coast between two towns. It was not an unrealistic ambition for him at all. He was not blind and was not a half-wit. Very hard worker, very strong physically, experienced Communist speaker and anti-Communist heckler, very well educated by reading in public libraries, spoke very good German, understood it perfectly, many amazing qualities.

It's a shame he was executed, he would have been an extremely valuable witness in the end. He saw through the Communist leadership, left the Party and joined a small splinter group, he may well have seen through Communism itself in the long run. Arson without loss of life was not even punishable by death in Germany, so they passed a special law ex-post facto and executed him. When told he was to be beheaded at 10 o'clock the next morning, he said, "Thank you very much for telling me. I shall see you tomorrow". Wrote no letters, no notes, no last words, showed up next morning as if he was going for a haircut, and was executed as cool as a cucumber. 

The court Dutch interpreter (who was never required) said “It is quite a remarkable fact, but van der Lubbe does not speak like an ordinary Dutch workman. He speaks in the idiom of educated people”. Another person said “Because of the damage to his eyesight, he appears to stare vacantly into space at times, but in fact he pays very close attention to everything going on around him and very few things escape his notice”. He understood the slightest nuance of meaning in German and could remember whole sentences word for word, insisting that they be re-worded to reflect some different, but minor, shade of meaning. His eyes had been damaged in two separate accidents with lime, but he was not blind. Because of this problem he developed an extraordinary memory for directions, he could remember everywhere he went in extremely great detail, and never got lost. He had been in Berlin for a week and knew the city almost as well as the police. He described his movements in the Reichstag step by step and never forgot a thing. He could describe long walks in Berlin, street by street. The Nazis “proved” that the curtains couldn't burn by using samples which had been kept in an airtight box for years, forgetting that the fire retardant chemical impregnation evaporated with time, and in Berlin theaters had to be renewed every 2 years!

He lived off public assistance and spent his time in public libraries, working odd jobs or tramping around. He was arrested in Poland trying to enter Russia illegally; but he was not just an ordinary "tramp". When told he could not possibly have caused that much damage all by himself, he calmly replied, "In that case, the plenum must have been far more inflammable that these gentlemen imagine". The plenum was almost 40 years old. The curtains set fire to the woodwork and the dome cracked, creating an artificial chimney.

It's impossible to read about van der Lubbe without a sense of admiration. He was a revolutionary, easily prepared to give his life for a cause. He had a nervous breakdown in jail when he saw that his effort was a total failure: the Communists rejected his gesture, because they wanted to blame the Nazis (which has been the standard propaganda yarn ever since), while the Nazis rejected his confessions because they wanted to blame the Communists! It never occurred to them that it was actually far more important to prove themselves innocent than to prove that the Communists were guilty. As a result of his hopeless position, which lasted for many months, van der Lubbe became completely apathetic, which is understandable. In one of his last court appearances, van der Lubbe made a long and impassioned, but lucid, coherent, and very well-spoken appeal to the court to put an end to the proceedings, saying, "All I ask is a verdict". The judges kept on telling him to name his accomplices. He kept on saying he couldn't, because he didn't have any. By the time he died, he was probably completely disgusted with life generally. 
 
The Vollmächtigungsgesetz would have been passed with or without the Reichstag fire because the country was ungovernable.

Reichstag Fire

Initial situation

Hitler is Chancellor but Nazis are only a minority in the government. They crucially control the Ministry of the Interior of Prussia (Prussia had been brought under direct rule the previous summer as the result of an emergency decree by Hindenburg, the President). This gives control of the police in two thirds of Germany to the Nazis.

What happened

On the 27 February 1933the Reichstag is empty as it had been in recess since December. At around 20:30 one of the caretakers checks the building and finds nothing unusual. At 20:50 a postman is passing the entrance to the session chamber and notices nothing unusual.

At 21:05 a student sees a man carrying a burning brand on the first floor. By 21:14 the fire alarm is received by the local firestation and the firemen are in the building by 21:24 but fires are breaking out everywhere. At 21:27 there is a huge explosion and the great chamber is enveloped by flames. In the rear of the building a half naked dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe is discovered and arrested. He claims to have done it as "a protest".

Hitler and Göring arrive on the scene. Göring at once accuses the communists. The next day the ageing President signs a decree which allows the Nazis to suspend freedom of speech which they use to ban virtually the entire opposition press. Communists are arrested wholesale though the party is not banned until after the elections so that the left vote will remain split.

Did the communists do it?

Torgler, the chairman of the Communist deputies to the Reichstag and a number of other communists are arrested including several Bulgarians. There is absolutely no evidence that they were involved and at the trial bought by the Nazis collapsed some months latter the prosecution case collapsed for this reason.

Did the van der Lubbe act alone?

That Lubbe was guilty there is little doubt. Not only was he discovered on the spot he also proudly claimed responsibility. But he did have a history of taking responsibility for things he had not done. While working for the Tielmann factory a strike broke out. Van der Lubbe claimed to the management to be one of the ringleaders and offered to accept any punishment as long as no one else was victimised even though he was clearly too inexperienced to have been seriously involved. During the trial he seemed to concerned only to establish his sole responsibility and was almost hostile to any attempts to get him off. In short he seems to have been suffering from a mental disorder that led him to seek both fame and the role of victim.

But did he act alone? The Reichstag fire was clearly well planned and speedily done. The building had clearly been prepared in advance with some kind of inflammatory chemical and this had been done quickly and smoothly. Van der Lubbe might well have been able to run round with a brand once others had prepared the building for the conflagration. It is doubtful however if any one person could have managed to complete the preparation in the limited time available and it was clearly quite beyond van der Lubbe. He was half blind as a result of a unpleasant act of bullying when some of his fellow workers put a mason's sack over his head and the chalk dust permanently damaged his eyes. He had to bring a piece of paper to within a couple of inches of his eyes before he could read it. He showed himself barely capable of organising his own life let alone the smooth operation that the Reichstag fire clearly was.

It is true he made several attempts to swim the channel. These consisted him greasing himself up in front of the press, swimming a short distance out and then returning to announce that the currents were currently unfavourable. It is a further sign of van der Lubbe's desperate desire for fame (that would be pathetic if it did not end with the executioner's axe) but hardly a sign of athletic ability.

Did the Nazis do it?

The Nazis clearly gained and for that reason were the prime suspects from the first. However given Germany was immediately plunged into a state of total dictatorship it was initially difficult to gather hard evidence. There is circumstantial evidence that points to the Nazis. First van der Lubbe was, in the period, immediately before the fire in the clutches of a couple of a couple of SA men. Karl Ernst head of the SA in Berlin when asked by a fellow Dutch rightist whether his Storm Troopers were responsible for the fire answered "If I said Yes, I'd be a bloody fool, if I said no I'd be a bloody liar."

The SA clearly had access to incendiary materials as they made a habit of setting fire to election displays of rival political groups.

Did the German State do it?

The Nazis were in power, they directly controlled the police in Berlin. Could they have used the state itself? But there is absolutely no evidence for this and in any case the SA were on hand to do the job. The evidence suggests the fire was the work of the Nazi party but not the state.


This account rest heavily on "The Hundred Days to Hitler" by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Frankel

Who Burned Down The Reichstag -- And Brought Hitler To Power
Edward Jay Epstein
27 December 2009

On the night of 27 February 1933 in Berlin, the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament and the symbol of the German state, was ablaze. While it was still smouldering, German police arrested Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist with a history of setting buildings on fire. Also at the crime scene was Adolph Hitler, the newly appointed leader of a shaky coalition government. Only hours later he proclaimed that the crime was not the work of a lone arsonist but part of a wider Communist plot to overthrow the German government calling the it a warning"sign from heaven" of the impending Communist Putsch. With such rhetoric, he persuaded President Paul von Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire decree, which temporarily suspended civil liberties in Germany and allowed the mass arrest of Communists, including its members in parliament. After a snap election, Hitler’s Nazi party had the majority necessary to pass the laws that would make Hitler dictator.

To provide evidence of a Communist plot, German authorities arrested Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian Communist, and Stalin’s chief of covert operations in central Europe. They also arrested two his Communist associates, Vasil Tanev and Blagoi Popov. Together with van Der Lubbe, they were charged with a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The Show trial ran from September to December 1933, and by almost any measure qualified as the trial of the century. It was presided over by judges from Germany's highest court. It had Hermann Göring, the creator of Hitler’s Gestapo, and other senior Nazi leaders, as star witnesses, and it was one of the first trials to be broadcast live via radio to the entire world. It began on the morning of 21 September 1933 with the rambling testimony of van der Lubbe.

He admitted setting the fire but claimed he had acted entirely on his own. The prosecution then produced evidence found by firemen, including twenty bundles of inflammable material strategically located in different parts of the Reichstag, that cast doubt on the idea that van der Lubbe, who was half blind, could himself have placed and rigged all these incendiary devices without help. Next Dimitrov, the operative accused of masterminding the conspiracy, was called to the stand. Though not a lawyer, he acted as his own defense lawyer. He agreed with the prosecutors that the fire had been set by a conspiracy, but, turning the tables on them, he argued that it was a Nazi not a Communist conspiracy, With great dramatic flair, he cross-examined Göring about his role in the investigation and the sequence in which evidence was uncovered. Allowing a worldwide radio audience to hear Stalin’s principal agent brutally interrogate Hitler’s alter ego in a German court room about inconsistencies in the investigation. At one point, he provoked a heated exchanges between himself and Göring on the nature of Communism. Dimitrov’s defense proved so effective that he, as well as his two Communist associates, were acquitted. Hitler and Göring were outraged at the verdict, but the chief judge explained that whereas the court was convinced that the fire resulted from a Communist conspiracy, the prosecutors had failed to prove Dimitrov and his associates was part of it. The only person convicted was the hapless Van der Lubbe, who was beheaded in 1934.

While the Leipzig trial was still under way, a counter-trial was staged in London by Willi Münzenberg, the brilliant propaganda chief for the Stalin-controlled Communist International. The evidence it produced took the form of dramatic revelations from masked men who claimed to be Nazi defectors, including one who identified himself as a former storm trooper and testified that his unit in Berlin had set the fire on direct orders from Göring. Another witness identified van der Lubbe as the homosexual lover of a top Nazi commander and was used as a fall guy. At the end of the one week counter-trial, Göring was convicted of burning down the Reichstag fire to bring Hitler to power. But though the counter-trial provided much grist for the media mill, it turned out that all its evidence had been faked by Münzenberg’s staff. The masked witnesses were not Nazi defectors but Communist loyalists acting out scripted parts. The "Nazi Storm trooper," for example, was played by Albert Norden, the editor of the leading Communist newspaper in Germany. By blending together a cocktail of fact and fiction, the counter-trial served to further pollute the evidentiary waters.

When the Red Army captured Berlin in 1945, it also captured the Gestapo archive. Stalin ordered this trove of documents, including some 50,000 pages of legal proceedings and Gestapo investigations bearing on the Reichstag fire, transported under seal to Moscow. For over three decades, they remained a state secret. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, part of this archive was opened to researchers. The documents, which presumably had been vetted (and possibly added to) by the KGB, showed no evidence that Stalin or Communist party officials had burnt the Reichstag. They did, however, contain evidence showing that the Nazis had been preparing to arrest Communists before the fire. In addition, there was one intriguing report suggesting that the fire had been set by the Nazis themselves. It described a Berlin prison guard telling police investigators that Adolf Rall, a prisoner arrested for theft, had been overheard bragging to other prisoners that he had been part of a Nazi squad that entered the Reichstag through a tunnel and sprinkled flammable liquid inside the building. German investigators were unable to confirm this story. No record of Rall’s interrogation by the Gestapo was ever found and Rall himself had been murdered on the outskirts of Berlin in November 1933 (while the trial was still in progress). So the lead was a literal dead end. In any case, since both the Gestapo and KGB had custody of an archive, and neither agency was above with tampering with documents,
the evidentiary value of the documents is at least questionable.

As a result, little more is known seven decades later about one of the most political explosive crimes of the twentieth century. Indeed, all that is known for certain that the Reichstag was deliberately destroyed. Whether a lone arsonist or a conspiracy, the resulting conflagration forever changed history.

An excerpt from  "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William L. Shirer:

On 31 January 1933, the day after Hitler was named Chancellor, Göbbels wrote in his diary: "In a conference with the Führer we lay down the line for the fight against the Red terror. For the moment we shall abstain from direct countermeasures. The Bolshevik attempt at revolution must first burst into flame. At the proper moment we shall strike."

Despite increasing provocation by the Nazi authorities there was no sign of a revolution, Communist or Socialist, bursting into flames as the electoral campaign got under way. By the beginning of February the Hitler government had banned all Communist meetings and shut down the Communist press. Social Democrat rallies were either forbidden or broken up by the S.A. rowdies, and the leading Socialist newspapers were continually suspended. Even the Catholic Center Party did not escape the Nazi terror. Stegerwald, the leader of the Catholic Trade Unions, was beaten by the Brownshirts when he attempted to address a meeting, and Bruening was obliged to seek police protection at another rally after S.A. troopers had wounded a number of his followers. Altogether fifty-one anti-Nazis were listed as murdered during the electoral campaign, and the Nazis claimed that eighteen of their own number had been done to death.

Göring's key position as Minister of the Interior of Prussia now began to be noticed. Ignoring the restraining hand of Papen, who as Premier of Prussia was supposedly above him, Göring removed hundreds of republican officials and replaced them with Nazis, mostly S.A. and S.S. officers. He ordered the police to avoid "at all costs" hostility to the S.A., the S.S. and the Stahlhelm but on the other hand to show no mercy to those who were "hostile to the State." He urged the police "to make use of firearms" and warned that those who didn't would be punished. This was an outright call for the shooting down of all who opposed Hitler by the police of a state (Prussia) which controlled two thirds of Germany. Just to make sure that the job would be ruthlessly done, Göring on 22 February established an auxiliary police force of 50,000 men, of whom 40,000 were drawn from the ranks of the S.A. and the S.S. and the rest from the Stahlhelm. Police power in Prussia was thus largely carried out by Nazi thugs. It was a rash German who appealed to such a "police" for protection against the Nazi terrorists.

And yet despite all the terror the "Bolshevik revolution" which Göbbels, Hitler and Göring were looking for failed to "burst into flames." If it could not be provoked, might it not be invented?

On 24 February, Göring's police raided the Karl Liebknecht Haus, the Communist headquarters in Berlin. It had been abandoned some weeks before by the Communist leaders, a number of whom had already gone underground or quietly slipped off to Russia. But piles of propaganda pamphlets had been left in the cellar and these were enough to enable Göring to announce in an official communiqué that the seized "documents" proved that the Communists were about to launch the revolution. The reaction of the public and even of some of the conservatives in the government was one of skepticism. It was obvious that something more sensational must be found to stampede the public before the election took place on 5 March.

On the evening of 27 February, four of the most powerful men in Germany were gathered at two separate dinners in Berlin. In the exclusive Herrenklub in the Vosstrasse, Vice-Chancellor von Papen was entertaining President Hindenburg. Out at Göbbels' home, Chancellor Hitler had arrived to dine en famille. According to Göbbels, they were relaxing, playing music on the gramophone and telling stories. "Suddenly," he recounted later in his diary, "a telephone call from Dr. Hanfstängl: 'The Reichstag is on fire!' I am sure he is telling a tall tale and decline even to mention it to the Führer."

But the diners at the Herrenklub were just around the corner from the Reichstag.

Suddenly [Papen later wrote] we noticed a red glow through the windows and heard sounds of shouting in the street. One of the servants came hurrying up to me and whispered: "The Reichstag is on fire!" which I repeated to the President. He got up and from the window we could see the dome of the Reichstlookingas though it were illuminated by searchlights. Every now and again a burst of flame and a swirl of smoke blurred the outline

The Vice-Chancellor packed the aged President home in his own car and hurried off to the burning building. In the meantime Göbbels, according to his account, had had second thoughts about Putzi Hanfstängl's "tall tale," had made some telephone calls and learned that the Reichstag was in flames. Within a few seconds he and his Führer were racing "at sixty miles an hour down the Charlottenburger Chaussee toward the scene of the crime."
    
That it was a crime, a Communist crime, they proclaimed at once on arrival at the fire. Göring, sweating and puffing and quite beside himself with excitement, was already there ahead of them declaiming to heaven, as Papen later recalled, that "this is a Communist crime against the new government." To the new Gestapo chief, Rudolf Diels, Göring shouted, "This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot, where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very night be strung up."

The whole truth about the Reichstag fire will probably never be known. Nearly all those who knew it are now dead, most of them slain by Hitler in the months that followed. Even at Nuremberg the mystery could not be entirely unraveled, though there is enough evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.

From Göring's Reichstag President's Palace an underground passage, built to carry the central heating system, ran to the Reichstag building. Through this tunnel Karl Ernst, a former hotel bellhop who had become the Berlin S.A. leader, led a small detachment of Storm troopers on the night of 27 February to the Reichstag, where they scattered gasoline and self-igniting chemicals and then made their way quickly back to the palace the way they had come. At the same time a half-witted Dutch Communist with a passion for arson, Marinus van der Lubbe, had made his way into the huge, darkened and to him unfamiliar building and set some small fires of his own. This feeble-minded pyromaniac was a godsend tthe Nazis. He had been picked up by the S.A. a few days before after having been overheard in a bar boasting that he had attempted to set fire to several public buildings and that he was going to try the Reichstag next.

The coincidence that the Nazis had found a demented Communist arsonist who was out to do exactly what they themselves had determined to do seems incredible but is nevertheless supported by the evidence. The idea for the fire almost certainly originated with Göbbels and Göring. Hans Gisevius, an official in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior at the time, testified at Nuremberg that "it was Göbbels who first thought of setting the Reichstag on fire," and Rudolf Diels, the Gestapo chief, added in an affidavit that "Göring knew exactly how the fire was to be started" and had ordered him "to prepare, prior to the fire, a list of people who were to be arrested immediately after it."

General Franz Halder, Chief of the German General Staff during the early part of World War II, recalled at Nuremberg how on one occasion Göring had boasted of his deed:

"At a luncheon on the birthday of the Führer in 1942 the conversation turned to the topic of the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears when Göring 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

Both in his interrogations and at his trial at Nuremberg, Göring denied to the last that he had any part in setting fire to the Reichstag.

Van der Lubbe, it seems clear, was a dupe of the Nazis. He was encouraged to try to set the Reichstag on fire. But the main job was to be done—without his knowledge, of course—by the Storm troopers. Indeed, it was established at the subsequent trial at Leipzig that the Dutch half-wit did not possess the means to set so vast a building on fire so quickly. Two and a half minutes after he entered, the great central hall was fiercely burning. He had only his shirt for tinder. The main fires, according to the testimony of experts at the trial, had been set with considerable quantities of chemicals and gasoline. It was obvious that one man could not have carried them into the building, nor would it have been possible for him to start so many fires in so many scattered places in so short a time.

Van der Lubbe was arrested on the spot and Göring, as he afterward told the court, wanted to hang him at once. The next day Ernst Torgler, parliamentary leader of the Communists, gave himself up to the police when he heard that Göring had implicated him, and a few days later Georgi Dimitroff, a Bulgarian Communist who later became Prime Minister of Bulgaria, and two other Bulgarian Communists, Popov and Tanev, were apprehended by the police. Their subsequent trial before the Supreme Court at Leipzig turned into something of a fiasco for the Nazis and especially for Göering, whom Dimitroff, acting as his own lawyer, easily provoked into making a fool of himself in a series of stinging cross-examinations. At one point, according to the court record, Göring screamed at the Bulgarian, "Out with you, you scoundrel!"

Torgler and the three Bulgarians were acquitted, though the German Communist leader was immediately taken into "protective custody," where he remained until his death during the war. Van der Lubbe was found guilty and decapitated.

The trial, despite the subserviency of the court to the Nazi authorities, cast a great deal of suspicion on Göring and the Nazis, but it came too late to have any practical effect. For Hitler had lost no time in exploiting the Reichstag fire to the limit.

On the day following the fire, 28 February, he prevailed on President Hindenburg to sign a decree "for the Protection of the People and the State" suspending the seven sections of the constitution which guaranteed individual and civil liberties. Described as a "defensive measure against Communist acts of violence endangering the state," the decree laid down that:

Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searchers, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

In addition, the decree authorized the Reich government to take over complete power in the federal states when necessary and imposed the death sentence for a number of crimes, including "serious disturbances of the peace" by armed persons.
 
Thus with one stroke Hitler was able not only to legally gag his opponents and arrest them at his will but, by making the trumped-up Communist threat "official," as it were, to throw millions of the middle class and the peasantry into a frenzy of fear that unless they voted for National Socialism at the elections a week hence, the Bolsheviks might take over. Some four thousand Communist officials and a great many Social Democrat and liberal leaders were arrested, including members of the Reichstag, who, according to the law, were immune from arrest. This was the first experience Germans had had with Nazi terror backed up by the government. Truckloads of Storm troopers roared through the streets all over Germany, breaking into homes, rounding up victims and carting them off to S.A. barracks, where they were tortured and beaten. The Communist press and political meetings were suppressed; the Social Democrat newspapers and many liberal journals were suspended and the meetings of the democratic parties either banned or broken up. Only the Nazis and their Nationalist allies were permitted to campaign unmolested.
 
With all the resources of the national and Prussian governments at their disposal and with plenty of money from big business in their coffers, the Nazis carried on an election propaganda such as Germany had never seen before. For the first time the State-run radio carried the voices of Hitler, Göring and Göbbels to every corner of the land. The streets, bedecked with Swastika flags, echoed to the tramp of the Storm troopers. There were mass rallies, torchlight parades, the din of loudspeakers in the squares. The billboards were plastered with flamboyant Nazi posters and at night bonfires lit up the hills. The electorate was in turn cajoled with promises of a German paradise, intimidated by the brown terror in the streets and frightened by "revelations" about the Communist "revolution." The day after the Reichstag fire the Prussian government issued a long statement declaring that it had found Communist "documents" proving:

Government buildings, museums, mansions and essential plants were to be burned down . . . Women and children were to be sent in front of terrorist groups . . . The burning of the Reichstag was to be the signal for a bloody insurrection and civil war . . . It has been ascertained that today was to have seen throughout Germany terrorist acts against individual persons, against private property, and against the life and limb of the peaceful population, and also the beginning of general civil war.

Publication of the "documents proving that Communist conspiracy" was promised, but never made. The fact, however, that the Prussian government itself vouched for their authenticity impressed many Germans. Tthe waverers were also impressed perhaps by Göring's threats. At Frankfurt on 3 March, on the eve of the elections, he shouted:

"Fellow Germans, my measures will not be cripped by any judicial thinking . . . I don't have to worry about justice; my mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more! . . . Certainly, I shall use the power of the State and the police to the utmost, my dear Communists, so don't draw any false conclusions; but the struggle to the death, in which my fist will grasp your necks, I shall lead with those down there—the Brownshirts".

Almost unheard was the voice of former Chancellor Brüning, who also spoke out that day, proclaiming that his Center Party would resist any overthrow of the constitution, demanding an investigation of the suspicious Reichstag fire and calling on President Hindenburg "to protect the oppressed against their oppressors." Vain appeal! The aged President kept his silence. It was now time for the people, in their convulsion, to speak.

On 5 March 1933, the day of the last democratic elections they were to know during Hitler's life, they spoke with their ballots. Despite all the terror and intimidation, the majority of them rejected Hitler. The Nazis led the polling with 17,277,180 votes—an increase of some five and a half million, but it comprised only 44 per cent of the total vote. A clear majority still eluded Hitler. All the persecution and suppression of the previous weeks did not prevent the Center Party from actually increasing its vote from 4,230,600 to 4,424,900; with its ally, the Catholic Bavarian People's Party, it obtained a total of five and a half million votes. Even the Social Democrats held their position as the second largest party, polling 7,181,629 votes, a drop of only 70,000. The Communists lost a million supporters but still polled 4,848,058. The Nationalists, led by Papen and Hugenberg, were bitterly disappointed with their own showing, a vote of 3,136,760, a mere 8 per cent of the votes cast and a gain of less than 200,000.

Still, the Nationalists' 52 seats, added to the 288 of the Nazis, gave the government a majority of 16 in the Reichstag. This was enough, perhaps, to carry on the day-to-day business of government but it was far short of the two-thirds majority which Hitler needed to carry out a new, bold plan to establish his dictatorship by consent of Parliament.


For sources on the responsibility for the Reichstag fire see:

Halder's affidavit, NCA, VI, (N.D. 3740-PS); transcript of Gisevius' cross-examination on 25 April 1946, "Trial of the Major War Criminals" [hereafter cited as TMWC], XII; Diehl's affidavit, Göring's denial, TMWC, IX, and NCA, VI (N.D. 3593-PS).

Willy Frischauer, "The Rise and Fall of Hermann Göring"
John Gunther, "Inside Europe" (Gunther attended the trial at Leipzig)
Douglas Reed, "The Burning of the Reichstag" 
 
There are many alleged testaments and confessions by those claiming to have participated in the Nazi firing of the Reichstag or to have positive knowledge of it, but none, so far as I know, has ever been substantiated. Of these, memoranda by Ernst Oberfohren, a Nationalist deputy, and Karl Ernst, the Berlin S.A. leader, have been given some credence. Both men were slain by the Nazis within a few months of the fire


  

Germany overturns conviction of Dutch communist executed over 1933 Reichstag fire
11 January 2008

German prosecutors said they have formally overturned the conviction of a Dutch communist who was executed after the Nazis accused him of torching the Reichstag parliament building in 1933.

Marinus van der Lubbe, a bricklayer, was convicted of arson and high treason in December 1933 and executed on 10 January 1934.

The federal prosecutor's office said in a statement that it formally "declared that the verdict ... is overturned" on 6 December.

It said that it made the move after being alerted to the case by a Berlin lawyer, who it did not identify, and that the conviction was overturned automatically under a 1998 law allowing for the rehabilitation of people convicted of crimes under the Nazis.

Historians still debate whether van der Lubbe, a communist, actually set the 27 February 1933 fire, which came just a month after Adolf Hitler's rise to power and was followed by the suspension of civil liberties.

Some believe the Nazis set it themselves to give Hitler an excuse for his crackdown against what he termed a "communist conspiracy."

Since the end of the Second World War, the hypotheses of the lone-wolf arsonist and of the Nazi conspiracy have vied for dominance. Defenders of the lone-wolf view need not harbor any Nazi or neo-Nazi sympathies: distinguished historians like Hans Mommsen, Ian Kershaw, and A.J.P. Taylor have taken that view, seeing the fire as a matter of simple good luck for Hitler, and accordingly bad luck for humanity.

Van der Lubbe was the only defendant convicted of arson at the subsequent trial. Four other communists charged with him were acquitted by a Leipzig court.

Federal prosecutors said his conviction was overturned because the death sentence resulted from measures introduced under the Nazis "that were created to implement the National Socialist regime and enabled breaches of basic conceptions of justice."