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.)//
//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)//
//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.)