Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery
Benjamin Carter Hett
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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.
with the Author, Hannover, July 20, 2008. 10: “SNOW FROM YESTERDAY” 1. Professor Hans Mommsen, interview with the Author, Feldafing, April 20, 2010. 2. Professor Hans Mommsen, interview with the Author, Feldafing, April 20, 2010; Hermann Graml, “Die fünfziger Jahre,” in Horst Möller and Udo Wengst, eds., 50 Jahre Institut für Zeitgeschichte: Eine Bilanz (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1999), 79. 3. Protokoll der konstituierenden Sitzung des “Deutschen Instituts für Geschichte der
Front.” Talk like this could only complicate Hitler’s efforts to win over conservative middle-class voters.21 Yet it was this SA that Goebbels employed as his main instrument in winning Berlin for the Nazis, in a complicated set of maneuvers that depended for success on ruthless violence coupled with breathtaking mendacity, and a high degree of voter credulity. The result was a string of violent clashes of various kinds—shootings, brawls, ambushes, bombings, and arson attacks, mostly between the
time, and some historians since, accused the governor of the Prussian province of Saxony of using the attack as a pretext to crack down on Communists. On the other hand, in the fall of 1933 the Gestapo cited this example of the Communists’ “gruesome plans” as a precedent for the Reichstag fire. In 1932 reports had reached Berlin’s political police that Communists were using the tunnel between the Reichstag president’s residence and the Reichstag itself to smuggle explosives into the building.
his homeward journey. He stayed that night in Hennigsdorf, near Spandau, at a police homeless shelter. Since it makes little sense that van der Lubbe should have walked as far as Hennigsdorf only to turn back for Berlin the next day to burn the Reichstag, advocates of Nazi responsibility for the fire have since 1933 focused more attention on Spandau and Hennigsdorf than Neukölln as the place where the SA or the Gestapo might have gotten to him. Much of the speculation has centered around one
German government’s reparation payments to Israel in the 1950s, he had suggested that Germans had murdered only one million Jews during the war. Tobias’s day job was to protect West German democracy against people like him.) By 1983 Breimer was an elderly woman and not well. She was convinced that thieves were trying to steal not only Diels’s papers, but also other things that had belonged to him, including a Kandinsky. The police, said Tobias, found no evidence of a break-in or a theft.