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Reichstag fire

Reichstag fire
Firemen struggle to extinguish the fire.
Date 27 February 1933
Location Reichstag building, Berlin, Germany
Participants Marinus van der Lubbe
Outcome Van der Lubbe executed
Civil liberties suspended
Nazi control of government entrenched

The Reichstag fire (German: Reichstagsbrand,    ) was an arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin on 27 February 1933. Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch council communist was arrested for the crime. Van der Lubbe, an unemployed bricklayer who had recently arrived in Germany, was caught at the scene of the fire. He declared that he had started the fire and was later sentenced to death. The fire was used as evidence by the Nazi Party that communists were plotting against the German government. The event is seen as pivotal in the establishment of Nazi Germany.

The fire started in the Session Chamber of the Reichstag building, the assembly location of the German Parliament. A Berlin fire station received an alarm call that the building was on fire at 21:25.[1] By the time the police and firemen arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies was engulfed in flames. The police conducted a thorough search inside the building and found Van der Lubbe. He was arrested, as were four communist leaders soon after.

Adolf Hitler, who was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany four weeks before, on 30 January, urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to suspend civil liberties in order to counter the ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of Germany.[2] After passing the decree, the government instituted mass arrests of communists, including all of the Communist Party parliamentary delegates. With their bitter rival communists gone and their seats empty, the Nazi Party went from being a plurality party to the majority; this enabled Hitler to consolidate his power.

In February 1933, three men were arrested who were to play pivotal roles during the Vasil Tanev and Blagoi Popov. The Bulgarians were known to the Prussian police as senior Comintern operatives, but the police had no idea how senior they were: Dimitrov was head of all Comintern operations in Western Europe.

The responsibility for the Reichstag fire remains an ongoing topic of debate and research.[3][4] Historians disagree as to whether Van der Lubbe acted alone, as he said, to protest the condition of the German working class. The Nazis accused the Comintern of the act. A few historians endorse the conspiracy theory[5] proposed by the Communist Party; that the arson was planned and ordered by the Nazis as a false flag operation. Whatever the truth, the Nazis used the fire to solidify their power and eliminate the communists as political rivals.


  • Prelude 1
  • The fire 2
  • Political consequences 3
  • Reichstag fire trial 4
    • Execution of Van der Lubbe 4.1
  • Dispute about Van der Lubbe's role in the Reichstag fire 5
    • Göring's commentary 5.1
    • "Counter-trial" organised by the German Communist Party 5.2
  • As archetype 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor and head of the coalition government on 30 January 1933. As Chancellor, Hitler asked German President Paul von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call for a new parliamentary election. The date set for the elections was 5 March 1933. Hitler's aim was first to acquire a National Socialist majority, to secure his position and remove the communist opposition. If prompted or desired, the President could remove the Chancellor. Hitler hoped to abolish democracy in a more or less legal fashion, by passing the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was a special law which gave the Chancellor the power to pass laws by decree, without the involvement of the Reichstag. These special powers would remain in effect for four years, after which time they were eligible to be renewed. Under the Weimar Constitution, the President could rule by decree in times of emergency using Article 48.[6] The unprecedented element of the Enabling Act, was that the Chancellor possessed the powers. An Enabling Act was only supposed to be passed in times of extreme emergency and had only been used once, in 1923–24 when the government used an Enabling Act to end hyperinflation (see hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic). To pass an Enabling Act, a party required a vote by a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. In January 1933, the Nazis had only 32% of the seats.

During the election campaign, the Nazis alleged that Germany was on the verge of a Communist revolution and that the only way to stop the Communists was to pass the Enabling Act. The message of the campaign was simple: increase the number of Nazi seats so that the Enabling Act could be passed. To decrease the number of opposition members of parliament who could vote against the Enabling Act, Hitler planned to ban the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (the Communist Party of Germany or KPD), which at the time held 17% of the seats, after the elections and before the new Reichstag convened.

The fire

Shortly after 21:00 on 27 February 1933, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag was on fire. Despite the best efforts of the firemen, most of the building was gutted by the blaze. By 23:30, the fire was put out. The firemen and police inspected the ruins and found twenty bundles of inflammable material (firelighters) unburned lying about. At the time the fire was reported, Adolf Hitler was having dinner with Joseph Goebbels at Goebbels' apartment in Berlin. When Goebbels received an urgent phone call informing him of the fire, he regarded it as a "tall tale" at first and hung up. Only after the second call did he report the news to Hitler.[7] Both left Goebbels' apartment and arrived by car at the Reichstag, just as the fire was being put out. They were met at the site by Hermann Göring who told Hitler, "This is Communist outrage! One of the Communist culprits has been arrested". Hitler called the fire a "sign from God" and claimed it was a Fanal (signal) meant to mark the beginning of a Communist Putsch (revolt). The next day, the Preussische Pressedienst (Prussian Press Service) reported that "this act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany". The Vossische Zeitung newspaper warned its readers that "the government is of the opinion that the situation is such that a danger to the state and nation existed and still exists".[8]

Political consequences

The day after the fire Hitler asked for and received from President Hindenburg the Reichstag Fire Decree, signed into law by Hindenburg using Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil liberties in Germany[10] and was used by the Nazis to ban publications not considered "friendly" to the Nazi cause. Despite the fact that Marinus van der Lubbe claimed to have acted alone in the Reichstag fire, Hitler, after having obtained his emergency powers, announced that it was the start of a Communist plot to take over Germany. Nazi newspapers blared this "news".[10] This sent the Germans into a panic and isolated the Communists further among the civilians; additionally, thousands of Communists were imprisoned in the days following the fire (including leaders of the Communist Party of Germany) on the charge that the Party was preparing to stage a putsch. With Communist electoral participation also suppressed (the Communists previously polled 17% of the vote), the Nazis were able to increase their share of the vote in the 5 March 1933, Reichstag elections from 33% to 44%.[11] This gave the Nazis and their allies, the German National People's Party (who won 8% of the vote), a majority of 52% in the Reichstag.[11]

While the Nazis emerged with a majority, they fell short of their goal, which was to win 50%–55% of the vote that year.[11] The Nazis thought that this would make it difficult to achieve their next goal, which was to pass the Enabling Act, a measure that required a two-thirds majority.[11] However, there were important factors weighing in the Nazis' favor. These were: the continued suppression of the Communist Party and the Nazis' ability to capitalize on national security concerns. Moreover, some deputies of the Social Democratic Party (the only party that would vote against the Enabling Act) were prevented from taking their seats in the Reichstag, due to arrests and intimidation by the Nazi SA. As a result, the Social Democratic Party would be under-represented in the final vote tally. The Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the right to rule by decree, passed easily on 23 March 1933. It garnered the support of the right-wing German National People's Party, the Centre Party, and several fragmented middle-class parties. This measure went into force on 27 March and, in effect, made Hitler dictator of Germany.

The Kroll Opera House, sitting across the Königsplatz from the burned-out Reichstag building, functioned as the Reichstag's venue for the remaining twelve years of the Third Reich's existence.

Dimitrov on an East German stamp

Reichstag fire trial

In July 1933, Blagoi Popov, and Vasil Tanev were indicted on charges of setting the Reichstag on fire. From 21 September to 23 December 1933, the Leipzig Trial took place and was presided over by judges from the old German Imperial High Court, the Reichsgericht. This was Germany's highest court. The presiding judge was Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bürger of the Fourth Criminal Court of the Fourth Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court.[12] The accused were charged with arson and with attempting to overthrow the government.

The window through which Marinus van der Lubbe supposedly entered the building

The Leipzig Trial was widely publicized and was broadcast on the radio. It was expected that the court would find the Communists guilty on all counts and approve the repression and terror exercised by the Nazis against all opposition forces in the country. At the end of the trial, however, only Van der Lubbe was convicted, while his fellow defendants were found not guilty. In 1934, Van der Lubbe was beheaded in a German prison yard. In 1967, a court in West Berlin overturned the 1933 verdict, and posthumously changed Van der Lubbe's sentence to 8 years in prison. In 1980, another court overturned the verdict, but was overruled. In 1981, a West German court posthumously overturned Van der Lubbe's 1933 conviction and found him not guilty by reason of insanity. This ruling was subsequently overturned. However, in January 2008, he was pardoned under a 1998 law for the crime on the grounds that anyone convicted under Nazi Germany is officially not guilty. The law allows pardons for people convicted of crimes under the Nazis, based on the idea that the laws of Nazi Germany "went against the basic ideas of justice".[13]

The trial began at 8:45 on the morning of 21 September, with Van der Lubbe testifying. Van der Lubbe's testimony was very hard to follow as he spoke of losing his sight in one eye and wandering around Europe as a drifter and that he had been a member of the Dutch Communist Party, which he quit in 1931, but still considered himself a communist. Georgi Dimitrov began his testimony on the third day of the trial. He gave up his right to a court-appointed lawyer and defended himself successfully. When warned by Judge Bürger to behave himself in court, Dimitrov stated: "Herr President, if you were a man as innocent as myself and you had passed seven months in prison, five of them in chains night and day, you would understand it if one perhaps becomes a little strained." During the course of his defence, Dimitrov claimed that the organizers of the fire were senior members of the Nazi Party and frequently verbally clashed with Göring at the trial. The highpoint of the trial occurred on 4 November 1933, when Göring took the stand and was cross-examined by Dimitrov.[14] The following exchange took place:

Dimitrov: Herr Prime Minister Göring stated on February 28 that, when arrested, the "Dutch Communist Van der Lubbe had on his person his passport and a membership card of the Communist Party". From whom was this information taken? Göring: The police search all common criminals, and report the result to me. Dimitrov: The three officials who arrested and examined Van der Lubbe all agreed that no membership card of the Communist Party was found on him. I should like to know where the report that such a card had been found came from. Göring: I was told by an official. Things which were reported to me on the night of the fire...could not be tested or proven. The report was made to me by a responsible official, and was accepted as a fact, and as it could not be tested immediately it was announced as a fact. When I issued the first report to the press on the morning after the fire the interrogation of Van der Lubbe had not been concluded. In any case I do not see that anyone has any right to complain because it seems proved in this trial that Van der Lubbe had no such card on him. Dimitrov: I would like to ask the Minister of the Interior what steps he took to make sure that Van der Lubbe's route to Hennigsdorf, his stay and his meetings with other people there were investigated by the police to assist them in tracking down Van der Lubbe's accomplices? Göring: As I am not an official myself, but a responsible Minister it was not important that I should trouble myself with such petty, minor matters. It was my task to expose the Party, and the mentality, which was responsible for the crime. Dimitrov: Is the Reichsminister aware of the fact that those that possess this alleged criminal mentality today control the destiny of a sixth part of the world – the Soviet Union? Göring: I don't care what happens in Russia! I know that the Russians pay with bills, and I should prefer to know that their bills are paid! I care about the Communist Party here in Germany and about Communist crooks who come here to set the Reichstag on fire! Dimitrov: This criminal mentality rules the Soviet Union, the greatest and best country in the world. Is Herr Prime Minister aware of that? Göring: I shall tell you what the German people already know. They know that you are behaving in a disgraceful manner! They know that you are a Communist crook who came to Germany to set the Reichstag on fire! In my eyes you are nothing, but a scoundrel, a crook who belongs on the gallows!".[15]

In his verdict, Judge Bürger was careful to underline his belief that there had in fact been a Communist conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag, but declared, with the exception of Van der Lubbe, there was insufficient evidence to connect the accused to the fire or the alleged conspiracy. Only Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. The rest were acquitted and were expelled to the Soviet Union, where they received a heroic welcome. The one exception was Torgler, who was taken into "protective custody" by the police until 1935. After being released, he assumed a pseudonym and moved away from Berlin.

Hitler was furious with the outcome of this trial. He decreed that henceforth treason—among many other offenses—would only be tried by a newly established People's Court (Volksgerichtshof). The People's Court later became associated with the number of death sentences it handed down, including those following the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler which were presided over by then Judge-President Roland Freisler.

Execution of Van der Lubbe

At his trial, Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded by guillotine (the customary form of execution in Saxony at the time; it was by axe in the rest of Germany) on 10 January 1934, three days before his 25th birthday. The Nazis alleged that Van der Lubbe was part of the Communist conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag and seize power, while the Communists alleged that Van der Lubbe was part of the Nazi conspiracy to blame the crime on them. Van der Lubbe, for his part, maintained that he acted alone to protest the condition of the German working class.

Dispute about Van der Lubbe's role in the Reichstag fire

Memorial at the Südfriedhof in Leipzig

According to Ian Kershaw, writing in 1998, the consensus of nearly all historians is that Van der Lubbe did set the Reichstag on fire.[16] Although Van der Lubbe was certainly an arsonist and clearly played a role, there has been considerable popular and scientific debate over whether he acted alone; the case is still discussed.

Kershaw, in Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris, says it is generally believed today that Van der Lubbe acted alone and that the Reichstag fire was merely a stroke of good luck for the Nazis.[17] It is alleged that the idea he was a "half-wit" or "mentally disturbed" was propaganda spread by the Dutch Communist Party, to distance themselves from an insurrectionist anti-fascist, who was once a member of the party and took action where they failed to do so.[18] Hans Mommsen concluded that the Nazi leadership was in a state of panic on the night of the Reichstag fire and they seemed to regard the fire as confirmation that a Communist revolution was as imminent as they said it was.[19]

British reporter Sefton Delmer witnessed the events of that night and his account of the fire provides a number of details. Delmer reports Hitler arriving at the Reichstag and appearing uncertain how it began and concerned that a Communist coup was about to be launched. Delmer viewed Van der Lubbe as being solely responsible but that the Nazis sought to make it appear to be a "Communist gang" who set the fire, whereas the Communists sought to make it appear that Van der Lubbe was working for the Nazis, each side constructing a plot-theory in which the other was the villain.[20]

In private, Hitler said of the chairman of the Communist Party, [21]

In 1960, [23]

In 1946,

  • Review of Bahar and Kugel book
  • Van der Lubbe exonerated by German courts
  • German court overturns Lubbe decision
  • Documentary about Reichstag fire and Marinus van der Lubbe
  • Newsreel footage from UK about the fire
  • The Conspiracists at London Review of Books
  • Review of Hett book

External links

  • Bahar, Alexander & Kugel, Wilfried (2001). Der Reichstagbrand (in Deutsch) (q ed.). 
  • Hett, Benjamin Carter (2014). Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  • , vol. 12, pp. 351–413, 1964. Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (originally published as "Der Reichstagsbrand und seine politischen Folgen",  
  • Tobias, Fritz (1964). The Reichstag Fire. New York: Putnam. 


  1. ^ Tobias (1964), pp. 26–28.
  2. ^ "History of the Reichstag Fire in Berlin Germany". 
  3. ^ "The Reichstag Fire". Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  4. ^ DW Staff (27 February 2008). "75 Years Ago, Reichstag Fire Sped Hitler's Power Grab". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  5. ^ "Who started the Reichstag Fire?". OUPblog. December 14, 2013. 
  6. ^ Botwinick, Rita (2004). A History of The Holocaust: From Ideology to Annihilation. New Jersey: Peason. pp. 90–92. 
  7. ^ Schirer, William L. (1991). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. London: Mandarin. pp. 191–192.  
  8. ^ Snyder (1976), pp. 286–287.
  9. ^ Gellately, Robert (2001). Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Oxford University Press. p. 18.  
  10. ^ a b Koonz (l2003), p. 33.
  11. ^ a b c d Koonz (2003), p. 36.
  12. ^ Snyder (1976), p. 288.
  13. ^ Connolly, Kate (12 January 2008). "75 years on, executed Reichstag arsonist finally wins pardon".  
  14. ^ Snyder (1976), pp. 288–289.
  15. ^ Snyder (1976), p. 289.
  16. ^ Kershaw (1998), pp. 456–458, 731–732.
  17. ^ Kershaw (1998), pp. 731–732.
  18. ^ "Dutch Council Communism and Van der Lubbe". 
  19. ^ Mommsen (1972), p. 144.
  20. ^ "Sefton Delmer's account of the Reichstag fire". 
  21. ^ Hitler, Adolf (2008). Hitler's Table Talk, 1941–1944. His Private Conversations. New York: Enigma Books. p. 121. 
  22. ^  
  23. ^ Snyder (1976), pp. 287–288.
  24. ^ a b  
  25. ^ Bahar & Kugel (2001)
  26. ^ Paterson, Tony (19 July 2001). "Historians find 'proof' that Nazis burnt Reichstag". Daily Telegraph. 
  27. ^ Hett (2014), pp. 318–320; Hett (27 February 2014). "Spies and the burning Reichstag". OUPBlog.  
  28. ^ Shirer, William (1959). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Touchstone. p. 193. 
  29. ^ "Nuremberg Trial Proceedings". March 18, 1946. Volume 9. 
  30. ^ Tobias (1964), p. 120.
  31. ^ Tobias (1964), pp. 122–126.
  32. ^ Costello, John (1988). Mask of Treachery. London: William Collins & Sons. p. 296. 
  33. ^ Drake, H. A. Constantine and the bishops: the politics of intolerance. p. 164. 
  34. ^ "'"Notes on the 'Great Persecution. 
  35. ^  
  36. ^ Robinson, John A.T. "Re-dating the New Testament". 
  37. ^  



In the 1992 film Batman Returns, the character Max Shreck makes a reference to starting a Reichstag fire in Gotham City to get the Penguin elected mayor.

In popular culture

The term "Reichstag fire" is used by some writers to denote a calamitous event staged by a political movement, orchestrated in a manner that casts blame on their opponents, thus causing the opponents to be viewed with suspicion by the general public. This is sometimes known as a false flag attack. In modern histories the destruction of the palace of Diocletian at Nicomedia has been described as a "fourth-century Reichstag fire" used to justify an extensive persecution of Christians.[33][34] According to Lactantius, "That [Galerius] might urge [Diocletian] to excess of cruelty in persecution, he employed private emissaries to set the palace on fire; and some part of it having been burnt, the blame was laid on the Christians as public enemies; and the very appellation of Christian grew odious on account of that fire."[35] Tacitus' account of the burning of Rome involved similar allegations.[36] Modern events such as the September 11 attacks have likewise been compared by one political writer to the fire by conspiracy analysts, seeking to raise doubt whether Al Qaeda was behind the attacks;[37] or suggesting that whether the attack was indeed orchestrated by Al Qaeda; the writer alleges that the US government used the attack to curb civil liberties and expand militarism.

As archetype

The Brown Book was divided into three parts. The first part, which traced the rise of the Nazis (or "German Fascists" as Katz called them, in conformity with Comintern practice, which forbade the use of the term Nazi), portrayed the KPD as the only genuine anti-fascist force in Germany and featured a bitter attack on the SPD. Formed from dissidents within the SPD, the KPD led the communist uprisings in the early Weimar period—which the SPD crushed. The Brown Book labelled the SPD "Social Fascists" and accused the leadership of the SPD of secretly working with the Nazis. The second section featured numerous examples of Nazi terror directed against Communists; no mention is made of Communist violence or non-Communist Nazi victims. The impression The Brown Book gives, is that Communists are victims of Nazism and the only victims. The second section deals with the Reichstag fire, which is described as a Nazi plot to frame the Communists, who are represented as the most dedicated opponents of Nazism. The third section deals with the supposed puppet masters behind the Nazis.

The mock trial began on 21 September 1933. It lasted one week and ended with the conclusion that the defendants were innocent and the true initiators of the fire, were to be found amid the leading [31] The counter-trial was an enormously successful publicity stunt for the German Communists. Münzenberg followed this triumph with another by writing under his name, the best-selling The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror, an exposé of what Münzenberg alleged to be the Nazi conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag and blame the act on the Communists. (As with all of Münzenberg's books, the real author was one of his aides; in this case, a Czechoslovak Communist named Otto Katz.[32]) The success of The Brown Book was followed by another best-seller published in 1934, again ghost-written by Katz, The Second Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and the Hitler Terror.

During the summer of 1933, a mock counter-trial was organised in London by a group of lawyers, democrats and other anti-Nazis under the aegis of German Communist émigrés. The chairman of the mock trial was Vincent de Moro-Giafferi and Maître Gaston Bergery of France, Betsy Bakker-Nort of the Netherlands, Vald Hvidt of Denmark and Arthur Garfield Hays of the United States.[30]

"Counter-trial" organised by the German Communist Party

I had no reason or motive for setting fire to the Reichstag. From the artistic point of view I did not at all regret that the assembly chamber was burned; I hoped to build a better one. But I did regret very much that I was forced to find a new meeting place for the Reichstag and, not being able to find one, I had to give up my Kroll Opera House ... for that purpose. The opera seemed to me much more important than the Reichstag.[29]:433

Under cross-examination at the Nuremberg trial in 1945/6, Göring was read Halder's affidavit and denied he had any involvement in the fire, characterizing Halder's statement as "utter nonsense". Göring stated:

On the occasion of a lunch on the Führer's birthday in 1943, the people around the Führer turned the conversation to the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears how Göring broke into the conversation and shouted: 'The only one who really knows about the Reichstag building is I, for I set fire to it.' And saying this he slapped his thigh.[28]

In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William L. Shirer wrote that at Nuremberg, General Franz Halder stated in an affidavit, that Hermann Göring boasted about setting the fire:

Göring (first row, far left) at the Nuremberg Trials

Göring's commentary

[27]'s 2014 study rejects the possibility of a single perpetrator, van der Lubbe, as he had neither time nor appropriate resources for a successful arson.Benjamin Carter Hett [26] published a 10-page response to the book, arguing that the thesis that Van der Lubbe acted alone remains the most likely explanation.Der Spiegel [25]

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