It’s a real change of pace today- I don’t often do On This Day posts, but this one really stood out to me. Not least because it’s one of those fact-and-dates that is clinging on from my GCSE days (the exam flashbacks are looming), but because it’s startling relevant now.
The burning of the Reichstag building is a real history-mystery with dubious blame and potential cover-ups. It was a fundamental rung on Hitler’s ladder to power, and another part of the story of anti-communism in the 1930s. Today I’m going to briefly outline the event and talk about it from a modern perspective, what with the rise of fascism being a frequently trending topic on twitter. Let me know what you think about this new format, and if you like the slightly more narrative structure.
The Reichstag building was the home to the German Parliament; the centre of democratic government for the nation, located in Berlin. It was burned down on the 27th February 1933, late in the evening. Shortly after 9.00pm, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda) received a phone call to inform him of the fire; he claims that it seemed such a fanciful notion that he did not act on it, or seek to inform anyone. Only after repeated calls, later, did anyone take action and inform Hitler. The two met with Goering outside the Reichstag, witnessing the flames, and immediately began to blame Communists and Socialists. The SA was put on high alert, as they had been instructed to fear a possible Communist insurrection and violence in the streets.
Unusually, the Head of the Prussian Political Police, Rudolf Diels, arrived after the three Nazis. He later stated that Goebbels told him that the fire was the work of Communists, and to spread the word as widely as possible. It was remarkable that Goebbels had the presence of mind to do this, in the face of the enormous fire engulfing Parliament, while Hitler was apparently ranting in the background about shooting Communists down in the streets.
So remarkable, in fact, that it is simply one facet of the story that seems to prompt suspicion that the historical narrative is not as correct as it may seem. A Dutch Communist called Marcus van der Lubbe was captured and blamed. He and four others were charged with arson, though only van der Lubbe stood trial. Under interrogation, apparently van der Lubbe offered such a detailed, if rambling, explanation of the night’s events that Rudolf Diels described him as a ‘mad man.’ Van der Lubbe was executed in January 1934.
However it has been argued that he did not start the fire, given just how instrumental it seems to have been in the Nazi rise to power. General Franz Halder, under interrogation at the Nuremburg Trials in 1942, claimed that Goering loudly boasted about his ‘achievement’ in starting the fire, while drunk at one of Hitler’s birthday parties. Martin Sommerfeldt, a Ministry of the Interior official who worked in Berlin, believed that the arson was carried out by members of the SA on Goebbel’s orders, in order to boost the Nazi’s electoral prospects in the upcoming March 1933 vote. He further claimed that SS men killed the SA fire-starters to eliminate the danger of witnesses. He cited the suspicious phone calls that Goebbels received, and their apparent prior knowledge of the fire and its communist ignition. Rudolf Diels, who was apparently the man who knew where the bodies were buried, backed his story.
The Reichstag could not be used as a government building after the fire, and parliamentary business was moved to the nearby Kroll Opera House. The ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’ was passed the next day; this gave Hitler emergency powers and suspended civil liberties. The March 5th election went ahead as planned, as Hitler warned of an imminent ‘communist revolt.’ The Nazis took 288 seats, a vast majority in the post-Weimar system of proportional representation. Regardless, shortly after taking power democratically, Hitler legally passed the ‘Enabling Act’ of March 1933, giving him autocratic power over any and all governmental decisions. This ended any democratic power that the Reichstag Parliament may have been able to maintain. Over the next five months, the Nazis systematically shut down all potential parties of political opposition.
So you’ve got a violent-tempered but charismatic man famously identified by his peculiar hair, sabotaging his closest rivals with dangerous slander shortly before a major election in order to guarantee his rise to power, who then used a series of executive orders to secure his own position and declare himself autocratic ruler of what was once a free country, which now had no defensible opposition. The Third Reich was founded on a conspiracy theory, and on an opposition to facts.
On 11 March 1933, Das Andere Deutschland, a weekly newspaper based in Berlin, announced that they were suspending publication in line with a governmental ban. Despite the ban initially extending only three months, the newspaper never resurfaced- this was a pattern seen often across the Germany press.
On 22 March 1933 the Dachau concentration camp opens and begins to receive political prisoners. This is only seventeen days after the election. The first Nazi ‘racial hygiene’ office is established in the Interior Ministry. Then, the Nazi ‘boycott’ of Jewish-owned business started slightly later in 1933. In April. In May, Trade Union offices are stormed by the SA and banned from Germany. Later in May, book burnings occur en masse across Germany, in organised events.
In October, Germany withdraws from the League of Nations, a precursor the the UN, in an act that other nations had not believed possible. It is legislatively sound.
“One of the greatest problems in writing history is to imagine oneself back in the world of the past, with all the doubts and uncertainties people faced in dealing with a future that for the historian has also become the past. Developments that seem inevitable in retrospect were by no means so at the time, and in writing this book I have tried to remind the reader repeatedly that things could easily have turned out very differently to the way they did at a number of points in the history of Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. People make their own history, as Karl Marx once memorably observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. These conditions included not only the historical context in which they lived, but also the way in which they thought, the assumptions they acted upon, and the principles and beliefs that informed their behaviour.” Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Reichstag fire or even about the concept of a historical conspiracy, then here is today’s recommended reading:
- David Coady (ed), Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate
- Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany
- Benjamin Carter Hett, Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery
- David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History
- Anson Rabinbach, “Staging Antifascism: “The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror”,” New German Critique
I’d love feedback regarding this new OTD-style post; yay or nay? If you have any thoughts on this topic, or on the change of format, they are very welcome: leave a comment below, or find The Slow Pulse on Twitter,Facebook and Tumblr. If you want to contact me directly, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org