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Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery [Englisch] [Gebundene Ausgabe]

Benjamin Carter Hett

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Kurzbeschreibung

27. Februar 2014
In February 1933, Adolf Hitler had only a tenuous grasp on power. Chancellor of Germany for merely four weeks, he led a fragile coalition government. The Nazis had lost seats in the Reichstag in the recent election, and claimed only three of thirteen cabinet posts. Then on February 27th, arson sent the Reichstag, the home and symbol of German democracy, up in flames. Immediately blaming the Communists, Hitler's new government approved a decree that tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic and cancelled the rule of law. Five thousand people were immediately arrested. The Reichstag fire marked the true beginning of the Third Reich, which ruled for 12 more years. The controversy surrounding the fire's origins has endured for 80. In Burning the Reichstag, Benjamin Hett offers a gripping account of Hitler's rise to dictatorship-one that challenges orthodoxy and recovers the true significance of the part the fire played. At the scene the police arrested 23-year-old Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch Communist stonemason. Though he was initially dismissed abroad as a Nazi tool, post-war historians since the 1950s have largely judged him solely guilty-a lone arsonist exploited by Hitler. Hett's book reopens the case, providing vivid portraits of key figures, including Rudolf Diels, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and the historian Fritz Tobias, whose account of the fire has, until now, been the standard. Making use of a number of new sources and archives, Hett sets the Reichstag fire in a wider context, revealing how and why it has remained one of the last mysteries of the Nazi period, and one of the most controversial and contested events in the 20th century. Burning the Reichstag will stand as the landmark work on this subject.

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It is an impressive piece of work that presents fresh evidence ... It is well written and highly readable. London Review of Books Well written, most carefully researched, and presented in great detail, here is the real story that skeptics will find difficult to refute. Gerhard L. Weinberg, Scientific American Book Club 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. Richard J. Evans, London Review of Books

Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

Benjamin Carter Hett, a former trial lawyer and professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of Death in the Tiergarten and Crossing Hitler, winner of the Fraenkel Prize.

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Burning the Reichstag 16. November 2013
Von S Riaz - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
It was a cold evening in 'Red Berlin' (as the Nazi's styled it) on February 27th, 1933. Adolf Hitler had only been in office as Chancellor for four weeks, heading a shaky coalition government - most of whom did not take him seriously as a political opponent. Yet, what should have been a quiet shift for Chief Constable Karl Buwert - posted to watch the west and north side of the Reichstag building, turned into a night of controversy which has never fully been solved. Although at the political and geographic heart of Berlin, the Reichstag was not in session, when at shortly past nine in the evening, he was approached by two different witnesses to tell him there was a problem. The Reichstag was on fire and, before long, would be totally ablaze. A young man was found in the building and arrested for the crime. He was Marinius van der Lubbe, a Dutch citizen, who was quickly taken to the notorious Alexanderplatz to be interrogated. Yet, could one man set alight such a huge building so quickly? Witnesses claimed to see more than one man in the Reichstag that evening - if so, who were they? Were they working with van der Lubbe, or did he begin the fire on his own?

In this fascinating account of an arson attack which had immense repercussions and which has never really been fully explained, author Benjamin Carter Hett, delves into the mystery of what really happened that cold night and who was responsible. He looks at all the main characters in events, including Goebbels and Rudolf Diels, the commander of the political department of the Berlin police. He takes readers exhaustively through that evening and all the events and witness accounts given, as well as looking at what happened afterwards. Hitler immediately announced the fire to be the work of Communists and it was deemed necessary by the Nazi's to defend security by investigating political extremists. Immediate arrests and the persecution of Communists and Social Democrats began and law was abandoned. Over five thousand people were arrested as Hitler stated the fire was the sign for a Communist uprising. Journalist Walter Kiaulehn later said the Reichstag fire, and the aftermath, was the "opening act." "First the Reichstag burned, then the books burned, and then the synagogues..."

It is fair to say that non-Nazi's were disbelieving of Hitler's announcement that Communists were responsible for the burning of the Reichstag - many openly so. Sceptical of much of what the Nazi party said, they felt that the fire had received a helping hand; possibly by the Nazi's themselves. This book looks at the investigation at the time, the fabrications, contradictions and progaganda, which forced the Nazi's into a defensive stance. The author says it was a "long and violent political struggle in which propagandistic shifting of the blame for violence was inseparable from the violence itself." The trial itself is absolutely gripping. Goebbels himself was under examination for nearly four hours, but felt he had conducted himself well and that, most importantly, "above all I got the better of Goering." As for van der Lubbe himself, he seemed to understand little of what was happening, but insisted he had set the Reichstag on fire for "personal reasons." However, was it really possbible for him to set such a devastating fire by himself in the short time he had available and, if not, who else was responsible? Lastly, this book looks at the aftermath, even after the war, including the Nuremberg trials and denazification proceedings, as well as later investigations and evidence.

I have to say that, although I was obviously aware of the burning of the Reichstag, I never fully realised the importance of what happened on later events. Hitler, so recently in power, used what happened to ignore law and order and attack his political opponents under the pretext of a possible Communist uprising. Some thought the fire was the birthplace of the Nazi regime, when fear erupted and the state took control. The author looks at whether there was a miscarriage of justice, assesses the importance of the events - both at the time and afterwards - and examines all the evidence of what actually happened, by whom and why. This is an important book, long overdue, and a fascinating account of what happened that evening in 1933 and why it had such an influence on what happened afterwards. An interesting read, in which you can examine the evidence and make your conclusions based on them, under the guidance of the author. My only criticism is that there were no illustrations in the kindle edition of this book. I am not sure whether illustrations exist in the 'book' version, but it would have been nice to have pictures of the people and places involved. However, overall, a really good read - an interesting account of the events and examination of the evidence.
2 von 2 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen A fascinating and thorough investigation into the history of the Reichstag Fire and into how history is lived and done. 17. März 2014
Von Peter S. Bradley - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
At 9 pm on February 27, 1933, Marinus van der Lubbe - a Dutch national who had been in Germany for less than 10 days and who does not seem to have had any strong to ties to any particular political party - entered the Reichstag, spent around 10 minutes lighting easily extinguished fires in the Reichstag restaurant, then ran to the parliamentary chamber and set a couple of drapes on fire. Within minutes, the chambers were uncontrollably in flames. Van der Lubber was arrested,

What happened after the Reichstag Fire was that Hitler declared that the fire was a signal for a Communist rising. Hitler prevailed upon German President Paul von Hindenburg to sign the "Reichstag Fire Decrees" that suspended civil rights and gave the Nazi led government the power to arrest political opponents. Many historians date the birth of actual Nazi power to the Reichstag Fire and the Reichstag Fire decrees. According to the author, Benjamin Carter Hett, "This [the Reichstag Fire Decree] was the foundation of the twelve-year dictatorship to come. It remained in force until Hitler committed suicide in his bunker." (p. 97.)

This book is about the fire, the investigation of the fire and the trial of van der Lubbe and the Communists auditioned by the Nazis as van der Lubbe's accomplices. The trial ended, however, as a propaganda defeat for the Nazis, with van der Lubbe being convicted, and subsequently guillotined, and the Communists being acquitted.

The book, however, is much more than an investigation of the immediate issues pertaining to the Reichstag Fire. Through the depiction of the lead-in to the fire, we learn quite a bit about Weimar era, the Night of Long Knives, the integration of Nazi war criminals into West Germany, and, most interesting, the role of politics and history. There is quite a lot of insight here on a lot of different issues.

But there remains the enduring mystery - who burned the Reichstag? It seems clear that van der Lubbe was there lighting fires. Van der Lubbe never denied his involvement. The problem is that even experts at the time understood that van der Lubbe's paltry efforts could not have been the cause of the fire that actually happened. Someone else had to have prepared the chamber with accelerant and tinder. But who? Van der Lubbe never implicated anyone else. (Interestingly, at his trial, on one of his coherent days, van der Lubbe mentioned that the day before the fire he met with "the Nazis" but it seems that no one was interested in following up on this off-script statement.)

The author, Benjamin Carter Hett, supplies an awful lot of information that point at the Nazis, but at the end, he points out that all we can really do is make an educated guess. The evidence that points in the direction of the Nazis includes such items as Goebbels' history of manufacturing Communist outrages when he felt threatened, the Nazi SA which had experience with arson, efforts that look like Nazi cover-ups, such as murdering potential witnesses, after the fact, and other bits of information.

If there is doubt about Nazi involvement, there is even more doubt about how much involvement there was on the part of the Nazi leadership. Hitler may always have believed that the Communists torched the Reichstag. Goring implied that it was a dissident SA or Nationalist group. Goebbels left no trace of any belief that he was involved, albeit he had a practice of lying to his diary.

Hett thoroughly documents the evolution of the theories about the Reichstag Fire. Initially, the Nazis claimed that van der Lubbe had accomplices. Then, when the trial was going bad and the world started thinking that the accomplices were Nazis, the Nazis began to promote the idea that van der Lubbe acted alone. Later on, in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials, various former Gestapo officers started to float the idea that the Nazis were involved, but when they realized that they might be made complicit in the perjury and judicial murders associated with van der Lubbe's trial, they decided that they should return to the "van der Lubbe acted alone" theory. Ultimately, it was an amateur historian named Fritz Tobias, who made it his life's work to "sell" the "van der Lubbe acted alone" theory. Hett documents how Tobias, using information gleaned from his official position on the Constitutional Court, was able to blackmail the authoritative Institute for Contemporary History into his theory, and the "van der Lubbe acted alone" theory became historical orthodoxy. An interesting point that Hett raises is that Tobias may have been running his historical theory in the service of West German intelligence for issues pertaining to domestic German politics of the era.

As a case study in how history is done, this book is worth the price of admission.

I came to this book, in part, because John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope" seeks to put the birth of the Nazi dictatorship at the point of the passage of the Enabling Decrees - rather than the Reichstag Fire Decree in order to "frame" Pius XII. Cornwell goes so far as to completely erase any mention of the Reichstag Fire from his book. So, this book is a useful counterbalance to that meritless book.

One question I would ask is "how could such a secret be kept for such a period of time"? The answer seems to be that it was always in the conspirator's interest to keep a low profile, It seems that a quick way to get a short life expectancy was to be associated with knowledge of the facts of the Reichstag Fire. Hett suggests that the possible leader of the SA Storm involved in the fire (Karl Ernst) was killed in the Night of Long Knives (p. 196), and that other people - such as Rudolf Diels, the Gestapo head who had investigated the fire - were worried about their life during the same period of time.(p. 224)

Part of my interest in Nazi history involves rebutting the spurious lie that the Nazis were Catholics or that Catholics were somehow pro-Nazi (e.g. Cornwell.). Outside of polemical pieces, when one reads history without that agenda one finds that this idea is nonsense. Thus, we have Hett reporting:

//Even if the German Nationals and the Nazis shared some goals and elements of ideology - extreme nationalism, militarism, and anti-Semitism - they were worlds apart in social composition and style. The Nationalists were devoutly, indeed militantly Protestant, while the leaders of the Nazi party, as Diels noted, tended to be lapsed Catholics, in whom the apostate's hatred of the church mixed oddly with lingering Catholic influences.(p. 65.)//

And:

//The Berlin Tageblatt reported on February 23rd that if the trends continued, this election would prove to the be the bloodiest yet in Germany. Nazi stormtroopers were regularly attacking the moderate Catholic Center Party's activists and meetings, along with those of the Communists and Social Democrats. Nazis fired on Catholic demonstrators in Kaiserslauten, while in Krefeld they broke up a meeting and beat the speaker, the former Prussian Prime Minister and Reich Transport and labor Minister Adam Stegerwald. (p. 71)//

And:

//Schnitzler had close ties to the group Catholic Action and its Berlin leader Erich Klausener, which would explain the Nazi's suspicion of him; Klausener was one of the victims of the "Night of Long Knives," and there was evidence at Schnitzler's denazification, plausible given the Klausener connection, that Schnitzler narrowly escaped the same fate. (p. 226.)//

Schnitzler was a subordinate to Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels. Schnitzler managed to make it through the war without promotion and without participating in any Nazi atrocities. He also got involved in the Valkyrie plot, but survived the failure of the plot through luck. (p. 226.)

Hett's discussion of the characters involved in the story of the Reichstag Fire is fascinating. Some of them seem to walk out of movies, such as the fast-living, unscrupulous first Gestapo head Rudolf Diels. Likewise, Schnitzer and Hans Gisevius were part of the Valkyrie plot and lived through some amazing plots. Be warned, though, that the names come fast and furious and it might be a good idea to list the dramatis personnae to keep track of them.

A final point, which kind of surprises me, a key part of the Reichstag Fire seems to be tied up in the German's unwillingness to face up to their Nazi past. I had thought that they had managed to do that, but it seems that there was a lot of "back-sliding." Hett quotes polls from the late 1940s and early 1950s that 57% of Germans felt that "National Socialism was a good idea badly carried out" and 72% were willing to say at least something positive about Hitler, with 10% willing to say that he was the "greatest living statement of the century." (p. 235.) That this kind of feeling would exist after a war that saw 1.4 million German soldiers killed in the last 98 days and a thousand civilians killed per day in bombing attacks is remarkable. (p. 237.) Even as late as 1986, the German political scientist Eckhard Jesse was willing to dismiss the Tobias theory that "van der Lubbe acted alone" because the opponents of that view were Jews or anti-Nazis forced by Hitler to emigrate and so presumptively could only be emotional about the subject. (p. 295.)
2 von 2 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Hett Advances the Literature on the Reichstag Fire 12. Februar 2014
Von S. Lyons - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
Benjamin Carter Hett’s Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery, delivers an exemplary in-depth reexamination into 1933’s mysterious Reichstag fire in Berlin Germany. Burning the Reichstag benefits significantly from Hett’s legal background, researching and addressing key legal documents overlooked by previous historians. The former attorney-turned-historian received his Ph.D. in modern German history from Harvard University and now teaches at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at CUNY. Hett’s other work in German history includes Crossing Hitler: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand, and Death in the Tiergarten: Murder and Criminal Justice in the Kaiser's Berlin.

Hett suggests that Nazi activists had indeed orchestrated and participated in setting the fires throughout the Reichstag building; the blaze was not the result of a single conspirator. Since 1945, historians have contended that Marinus van der Lubbe had acted alone as asserted by the Nazis. Hett’s contribution sheds new light on the fire and the trial’s legal process behind van der Lubbe’s hasty execution. van der Lubbe was executed by guillotine on 10 January 1945.

The Reichstag fire became the genesis for Hitler and the National Socialists rise to power and control; and as such, had much to gain from the fire by placing responsibility on communists for the destruction. “The ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’ was the legal basis for the brutal dictatorship that lasted for twelve years, marking the true beginning of the Third Reich.” Marinus van der Lubbe was nothing more than a patsy for the Nazis, and Hett illustrates through reexamination of testimonies, archival research and interviews that it was impossible for just one man to set multiple fires in the short time-frame before Berlin’s firefighters had arrived.

Burning the Reichstag is enhanced by research on van der Lubbe’s trial and witness testimony which had not previously been considered. This provocative new contribution from Hett advances the literature on this important subject by decades. Burning the Reichstag will appeal to those interested in the genesis of the Third Reich and the beginning of Nazi Germany’s reign of terror.
4.0 von 5 Sternen The Reichstag fire and the subsequent historical debate 13. August 2014
Von Ronald H. Clark - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Verifizierter Kauf
On February 27th, 1933, shortly after Hitler assumed his position as Chancellor, a fire destroyed a good portion of the Reichstag (or Parliament) building. In all the decades since, a fierce debate has raged as to whether the Nazis set the blaze, in order to have a justification for cracking down on their opponents (principally the Communists), or if a solitary mentally-impaired Dutchman, who freely confessed to the crime, actually was solely responsible. This book, by a distinguished Hunter College professor of history, Benjamin Carter Hett, sets out to re-examine the available evidence and place the episode into a proper historical context. Several years of extensive archive and other historical research are reflected in the book, which at times seems to read like an exciting detective story as pieces of evidence and various theories are sifted. Why should we care one way or the other? As the author explains, the fire set off the start of the Hitler dictatorship, because it resulted in the promulgation of the Reichstag Fire Decree that lasted until the end of the war, and legally justified the repressive regime. However, in my opinion, resolving this historical debate once and for all is a worthy motive itself for looking at the fire again. Because, while the fire died out 81 years ago, the historical debate continues to rage.

The author begins by looking at some key individuals and events prior to the fire. Readers of Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts" will recognize one of the key actors throughout the book, Rudolph Diels, commander of the political department of the Berlin police, and a Goring protege. There is an interesting discussion about Goebbels and how he had won Berlin for the Nazi party. A lengthy chapter reviews how the investigation of the fire was conducted. Many issues remained unresolved after the investigation, which gave rise to rumors that the Nazis, and not a "single culprit," had set the fire. Books started appearing that claimed to present documentary evidence of the Nazis' guilt. Several individuals were tried on charges of involvement in the fire, including several Communists, because the government was trying to blame the fire on them and shift the focus away from the Nazis, but the only real conviction was of the confessing Dutchman who was subsequently executed under provisions of a retroactive law.

While the author offers some interesting observations about various piece of evidence and unresolved issues, from his perspective as a former trial lawyer, and all this mass of evidence is exciting to read about, for me the real heart of the book is the author tracing the development of the two competing theories of "who did it." It is an interesting tale because it carries on into the postwar period, with various former Nazis using denazification proceedings as opportunities to "prove" their own innocence regarding the fire. A principal focus of the book is Fritz Tobias, whom the author was able to interview before his death and review some of his papers, the principal defender of the "sole culprit" theory. This leads into a fascinating discussion of the pressure applied to the Institute for Contemporary History and a young Hans Mommsen (later one of the foremost German historians) to reject the Nazi guilt theory of the fire. Professor Hett, however, after all his study of the pertinent sources and information, embraces the Nazi responsibility theory.

Ironically, this book itself has become a recent topic in the continuing historical debate. Richard J. Evans, a leading British historian of things German, took aim at this book in a long review in the "London Review of Books" (Volume 36, no. 9, May 8, 2014). Evans, Regius Professsor of History at Cambridge and president of Wolfson College, Oxford, undertook to decimate Professor Hett's evidence and arguments, and he is certainly a formidable opponent. So, the general reader (who is not a professor of history) must weigh these contrasting arguments, sift the evidence, and try and reach a judgement about who is right and who is wrong. To me, the key point of evidence comes in Hett's discussion of some expert testimony, which convinced me that the Dutchman simply had neither the time nor the materials to set the fire. Hett's meticulous discussion of this evidence juxtaposed against his almost minute-by-minute analysis of the available time, is persuasive. However, after going through 300 pages of detailed and complex analysis of the evidence, it is easy to get lost in the details. In effect, it is like serving on an historical jury and having to decide how to vote. But it is a worthy endeavor, nonetheless, because this was an episode of the most critical importance.
4 von 6 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen A meticulous argument that reopens the question, but not without occasional overreach and one basic flaw. 10. Februar 2014
Von Bill Bruno - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
The consensus for blame for the Reichstag fire has gone through a couple of phases. The original conclusion was that the Nazis set it up as a false-flag operation, blamed the Communists and used that as leverage to persuade President Hindenburg to pass decrees permitting the suppression of left-wing opposition parties. Starting around 1960, this was superseded by the belief that Marinus van der Lubbe, the only person to actually be punished for the fire, acted alone. The pendulum has returned to the original side with the new availability of former German records held in the former states of East Germany and the Soviet Union. A 2001 book on the subject, Der Reichtagsbrand by Alexander Bahar and Wilfred Kugel, is not, unfortunately, available in English. This has been rectified by Benjamin Carter Hett's book. Despite one basic flaw in design and some overreach, Burning the Reichstag at the very least reopens the question.

Hett proceeds chronologically, from the first to the investigation and trials. He then spends much of the rest of the book on the historiography of the fire itself, analyzing the phase I mentioned above. His strongest argument for Nazi involvement is in the technical analyses of the fire, both then and later. The way the fire spread is arguably inconsistent with the sole-actor argument, especially since certain incendiaries would've been required that were not found on van der Lubbe. The existence of an SA unit with training in arson is also substantive.

The treatment of the Adolf Rall's evidence is an example of the occasional overreach on Hett's part. Rall was an SA member who was supposed to have stated that he and other SA men had been given orders to burn the Reichstag. Rall's murdered body was later found after the Gestapo had taken him into custody. Hett concedes that Rall could've been lying and that the Nazis wanted to kill him simply because his claims could've been an embarrassment. Hett then writes "Were this the case, however, there would have been no need to interrogate him so urgently nor to search his mother's apartment. The only reasonable inference therefore is that Rall "had to die" because his testimony was both dangerous to the SA <i>and</i> in at least essential points correct." (p. 213). It is certainly a reasonable inference, but the <i>only</i> reasonable inference? Why couldn't the SA have been seeing if anything could be found that could be used against Rall, or have simply been on a fishing expedition?

His treatment of the historiography of the fire raises questions as to the choice to cover it in the same book as an analysis of the fire itself. Fritz Tobias, a West German government official and amateur investigator of the fire, is the key person here as he his work kicked off the shifting of opinion to the lone-actor hypothesis. Here is where the second mission of the book impairs its first mission. Hett essentially argues that Tobias' argument gained traction to a large extent because of the imperatives of denazification and the Cold War need to quickly rehabilitate West Germany as an ally of the West. He also argues that this imperative was intensified by Tobias' involvement with right-wing German elements. The problem, of course, is that such as nothing to do with the accuracy of the arguments and serves as a protracted ad hominem. There is a good example on pg. 297 where Hett mentions how a right-wing supporter of Tobias defended him "...with the same enthusiasm and for the same reasons that he supported a Holocaust-denying neo-Nazi [David Hoggan]. This was not, of course, Tobias's fault. But it is important to understand that his argument went with the grain of such far-right positions..." It is not important at all to the question of who set the Reichstag fire but does skew that question.

The book's examination of the Reichstag fire is meticulous, well-researched and at the very least reopens the question. However, it doesn't appear possible to also analyze the historiography without skewing the issue of the fire itself.
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