The Reichstag Fire
Legend and Truth
by Fritz Tobias

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

serialized in Der Spiegel, 1959-1960

book originally published as —

Der Reichstagsbrand
Legende und Wirklichkeit
Grote Verlag: Rastatt, 1962
723 pages; diagrams, maps, photos

translated by Arnold J. Pomerans
introduction by A. J. P. Taylor

Secker & Warburg: London, 1963
348 pages; diagrams, maps, photos

Putnam: New York, 1964
348 pages; diagrams, maps, photos

August 2010

A light into darkness
During discussions with the Führer we drew up the plans of battle against the red terror. For the time being, we decided against any direct countermeasures. The Bolshevik rebellion must first of all flare up; only then shall we hit back.
Joseph Goebbels
diary entry, 31 January 1933
[the day after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany]
Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei

The Reichstag Fire of 27 February 1933 should remain, ever after, an object among the mental furniture of each aware and participating citizen of every free country, or of any country where freedoms are at risk or already damaged by malicious governance and mendacious propaganda. This event, just a month after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, was a sufficient — although not essential — excuse and impetus for the National Socialist Party (the NSDAP or Nazi Party) to take major strides toward transforming Germany into a dictatorship.

Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch sometime-Communist acting on his own, set fire to the Session Chamber of the parliament building in Berlin, apparently catching by surprise both the newly-empowered Nazi Party leadership and the leaders of their most determined opposition, the Communist Party.

My summary assertion in the preceding sentence was extremely controversial in 1933, and remains so today. This is the basic conclusion of the standard history, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth, by Fritz Tobias, published in Germany in 1962 and in English translation in 1963.

A drama of political crime:
  1. a painstaking detective reconstruction
  2. a clash of propagandas
  3. an entertaining courtroom tangle

There are three main parts to The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth. (I review the English translation, about half the length of the German edition.) Fritz Tobias' historical detective work is so detailed, and so clearly presented, that his book — if we allow the distance of time to suspend the intensity of 1933, and the awful foreboding — reads like a detective novel.

1. The criminal case

The first section is Tobias' fascinating police-procedural investigation and reconstruction centered on the night of the fire. There are diagrams of the Reichstag building and of van der Lubbe's declared route within the building. We meet suspects, bystanders, and police, and see the reactions of high Nazi officials Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering as they hear the news and arrive on the scene.

2. The political case

The second section describes the flurries of claims, confessions, accusations, and propaganda. It is a little complex because of so many false-to-fact claims, so much deliberate disinformation coming from more than one direction.

To me the most intriguing aspect of the propaganda war is the Communist campaign based in Paris. We owe much of our knowledge of its inner workings to Arthur Koestler's reminiscences of his own Communist Party years, in The God That Failed and The Invisible Writing. Willi Münzenberg, a Reichstag deputy himself, suddenly and luckily in exile, also headed up the fabulous Comintern organization called the Münzenberg Trust, whose Paris branch issued a blizzard of propaganda and counterfeit documents about the Reichstag Fire. Münzenberg is of particular interest to Americans studying subterranean political currents because it is his organization that, for instance, working in Hollywood in these same years, recruited Communist Party members, entranced fellow-travelers, and founded front groups secretly answerable to the Comintern. See Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald & Allis Radosh.

The first important point to take away from the political-propaganda aspect is that both the Nazi Party and the Communist Party mounted strong and ongoing propaganda campaigns, and both succeeded in their primary aims. The Nazis needed to secure public opinion within Germany, the Communists wanted it outside Germany, and to a considerable extent they both achieved these primary goals.

The second important point is to understand that for both of these opposed campaigns, fundamentally the question of responsibility was irrelevant. All the underlying facts could have been different, more than one true scenario might have occurred; but given the Reichstag Fire under any circumstances, both the Nazis and Communists would have blamed each other. It might as well have been a meteorite hitting the building.

3. The trial

The third section is a grand courtroom drama later in 1933. There's a surprising amount of humor here, because the prosecution had a very weak case against all the indicted Communists, except for van der Lubbe, whose volunteered testimony they disregarded. The State's expert witnesses were more or less charlatans, and their theories drifted from the exotic to the ridiculous.

One of the accused "conspirators" was a Bulgarian Communist named Georgi Dimitrov, not even in Berlin on the night of the fire. The Nazis and the Court knew Dimitrov was a Communist, but didn't know that he was head of the Comintern for Western Europe. Dimitrov easily out-thought and out-talked his accusers. Do not miss his testimony and summing-up for the Court: it is superb.

Goebbels and Goering both took the stand during the trial. The foreign journalists present had a field day throughout, and ensured that the bungling, biased trial was told to all the world.

"Fateful to an extent beyond calculation"

Let's glance at the repercussions, via a couple of other books.

Eliot Barculo Wheaton's focused chronicle of the takeover period, Prelude to Calamity: The Nazi Revolution 1933-35, devotes an entire chapter to the question of responsibility, "The Reichstag Fire Question". Wheaton essentially agrees with Tobias' conclusions.

Responsibility aside, the impact of the fire within Germany was immediate and heavy. Wheaton discusses the next-day formulation and quick issuance of the Reichstag Fire emergency decrees:

... they are described as measures "to ward off Communist acts of violence imperiling the State". In practice they are applied indiscriminately against any person or group unfriendly to the government. They begin by suspending the guarantees of personal liberty embodied in ... the Constitution ....

Section 1 suspends "until further notice" freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, privacy of communication by mail, telephone or telegraph, immunity to house-search without warrant, immunity to arbitrary confiscation of property. No "further notice" rescinding the suspension is ever issued.

Section 2 provides that in any State where "the necessary measures for the restoration of public security and order are not adopted", the Reich government can "to that extent" and "temporarily" take over the powers of the State government. ...

[President Hindenburg's] endorsement of these sweeping measures is fateful to an extent beyond calculation. They arm the government, in effect Hitler himself, with tyrannical powers of enormous scope and are destined to remain in force until the Third Reich's downfall twelve years later.

Eliot Barculo Wheaton
"Chronicle: January 30 — February 28"
Prelude to Calamity:
The Nazi Revolution 1933-35
The Fire trickles down

Moving way down the geopolitical scale to the example town of Northeim in William Sheridan Allen's close study, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945, we see how local leaders also were caught by surprise but rose to the occasion:

On March 1 the police confiscated "forbidden newspapers and pamphlets of the SPD and KPD [Socialist and Communist parties]" after raids on private dwellings in Northeim. It was also announced that a worker had been arrested the day before for "distributing an SPD election leaflet despite the prohibition."

The instruments of repression were also increased. On February 28 [local Nazi leader] Ernst Girmann (in contravention of long-standing NSDAP directives) authorized the carrying of loaded firearms by the town's Stormtroopers, ostensibly to defend themselves against any attacks.

On March 1, thirty SS and SA men were deputized as police. Their uniform was the regular Nazi brown shirt with a white armband marked Hilfspolizei (Deputy Police). They immediately began patrolling the streets of the town. Since these were the same men who had repeatedly fought with Reichsbanner men in the previous years, it can be imagined what their concept of law enforcement was. The Stormtrooper achieved his dream: the chance to do violence without fear of police hindrance. The Nazis not only controlled the police — now they were the police.

William Sheridan Allen
"The Last Elections"
The Nazi Seizure of Power:
The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945
  (1965; revised 1984)
The Reichstag Fire controversy continues ...

I want to make it as clear as possible that I am not an advocate for the arsonist culpability of the Communist Party, or the National Socialist Party, or sometime-Communist Marinus van der Lubbe. Between two genocidal totalitarian movements and regimes "of the people", both fortunately now defunct in their nation-state forms, we need not be finicky. As for van der Lubbe's sole capability and culpability, Fritz Tobias makes a clear and reasonable case.

The controversy of 1933 has not been certainly settled to everyone's satisfaction. Read The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth, Tobias' engrossing history and analysis, along with any further material you wish; and judge for yourself.

But — aside from all controversy:
  1. historical interest
  2. opportunistic example

Standing back, taking a deep breath, and moving past the controversy, what do the event of the Reichstag Fire, and its near-term aftermath, portend for our current times?

Let me rephrase my own major contention: The historical instance of the Reichstag Fire is of important historical interest; while the opportunistic example of the Reichstag Fire's consequences is an ongoing warning or threat of potentially grave danger to any Republic.

Crises have been and will again be exploited by ruthless leaders or would-be despots. If the unhindered course of events does not present a sufficiently dramatic opportunity, a crisis may be created from a small event or from nothing at all.

What to do? — Be awake. Demand and assure that the Constitution is followed by those sworn to uphold it. Avert, reverse, pull down any forms of State machinery that upon "crises" — whether fortuitous or manufactured — expect to gain lasting power at the expense of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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