In January of 1933, Germany elected Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, and as one of his first acts he called for a second election to determine seats in the Reichstag, or German Parliament. Hitler intended to fill the Reichstag with other Nazi party officials, allowing them to replace the Weimar Republic, the German system of Parliamentary democracy instituted after World War I, with their own government in order to control Germany's future. The Communist party's objections to this bold plan posed a political threat to the Nazi party.
At a few minutes after ten on the night of February 27, 1933, less than a month after Hitler became Chancellor, the Berlin Fire Department received a call claiming that the Reichstag building was on fire. Fire fighters raced to the scene and discovered that the building was fully engulfed; fires had started in at least 20 different places within the building. Upon hearing of the fire, Hitler, who was having dinner at the Berlin apartment of party campaign manager Joseph Goebbels, climbed into his waiting car and rushed to the scene. Goebbels did the same.
Police responding to the scene discovered Marinus van der Lubbe, a 24-year-old Dutch bricklayer and Communist propagandist, inside the burning building. Dressed only in shoes and pants, and with matches and a cigarette lighter in his pockets, Van der Lubbe had arrived in Berlin only about a week earlier, and had been railing against the Nazis and calling for a pro-Communist uprising to replace them in the days since. Van der Lubbe quickly claimed sole responsibility for the fire, which Reichstag President Hermann Göring, who had arrived almost immediately, relayed to Hitler and Goebbels when they arrived at the site.
Hitler's party toured the site of the fire, even as it continued to burn; at one point, fire fighters denied their entry into a room because the chandelier was in danger of an imminent fall. Göring stated repeatedly that the Communists were responsible, pointing out with precision where the first gasoline-soaked rags were placed and what tinder they first lit. Hitler, red-faced and excited, extolled to British journalist Sefton Delmer 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." The Nazi party took advantage of the occasion with full force.
Hitler and his staff orchestrated raids on the homes of 400 suspected Communist sympathizers that took place within hours. The next morning, Hitler forced the institution of the Reichstag Fire Decree, implementing Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which authorized the President (aging but respected Paul von Hindenburg, who by that time did whatever Hitler commanded) to completely suspend civil liberties in times of national emergency. The original authors intended Article 48 to be a temporary measure, that would be revoked once the emergency subsided, but in the Nazi's hands, the revocation never materialized; overnight, German citizens lost the rights to free expression, assembly, form groups, due process of law, and left them subject to complete government control over their homes, property, companies, and all sorts of search and seizure options. Hitler emerged from the aftermath of the fire, from that point on, as a totalitarian dictator.
The second election which Hitler had arranged took place only five days later. Nazi agents, unrestricted in the amount of pressure and outright violence they could inflict upon their political opponents, cruised to a major victory. Goebbels became the Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and Göring later created the infamous Gestapo in the following November. Van der Lubbe was tried, found guilty and, in 1934, beheaded.
The debate continues to this day whether Van der Lubbe acted alone, and what his motives may have been. Critics wonder aloud whether the Nazi party, or elements thereof, aided Van der Lubbe in setting the fires, citing as evidence the easily visible motivation for Hitler to burn the Reichstag in order to turn public opinion against the Communists. Concrete proof one way or the other has yet to emerge, if it ever will.
Links and Sources:
Trail Sinister by Sefton Delmer, Martin Secker and Warburg, London, 1961.
A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945, Volume 3, by Hajo Holborn, Princeton University Press, 1982.
History's Greatest Conspiracies by H. Paul Jeffers, Globe Pequot, 2004.
"Fire at the Reichstag" © 2015 by James Husband.