Reichstag terrorist attack

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Reichstag fire
Der Reichstagsbrand.jpg

The Reichstag fire (German: Reichstagsbrand) was a terrorist arson attack on the Reichstag (Parliament) building in Berlin on 27 February 1933. Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch Communist, was caught at the scene, pleaded guilty to the police and again in court, and was executed the following year.

The Reichstag fire, as well as factors such as ongoing violence involving among others Communists and fear of a Communist coup and rule of terror, caused the issuing of the "Reichstag Fire Decree" ("Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State") and three weeks later the Enabling Act which suspended many civil liberties and was used for purposes such as suppressing the Communists. In the following months the NSDAP became the only legal party.

There is no credible evidence to show that the fire was a National Socialist false flag operation, as some say.


At 21:15 on the night of 27 February 1933, a Berlin fire station received an alarm call that the Reichstag building, the German Parliament, was ablaze. The fire was started in the Session Chamber, and by the time the police and firemen arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies was in flames. Rudolf Diels was head of the Prussian Political Police in early 1933 when the fire occurred.

Inside the building, the police quickly found a shirtless Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch Jewish insurrectionist council communist, and unemployed bricklayer, who had recently arrived in Germany, ostensibly to carry out his political activities. The arsonist asserted he was the only one involved in the outrage. However, he had been seen some time before the fire, by unexceptional witnesses, with the Communist Party Reichstag Deputy, Torgler. In addition, according to van der Lubbe's statement upon being arrested, he had also been in touch with the Marxist Social Democratic Party of Germany[1] who had been making strong efforts to enter into a united front with the parliamentary Communists.[2]

There was speculation that the outrage was committed in response to the closing by police on February 24th, of Karl Liebnecht House, the central headquarters in Berlin of Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the seizure of voluminous secret material by the Prussian police. At a German Government Cabinet meeting at 11 a.m. the fire was used as evidence that the Communists were beginning a plot against the German government. All museums and palaces were temporarily closed and the Communist and Social Democratic Press were prohibited. All Communist deputies and party officials across the Reich were arrested. A further Cabinet meeting took place the following day at Noon where Prime Minister of Prussia Hermann Göring reported that the Prussian police had found important material on the plans to burn the Reichstag, which had previously been postponed. He believed that more than one person had been involved. In addition Moscow had given the Berlin Communists a time limit to get things done otherwise they would be deprived of their subsidies.[3] The Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, urged President Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree in order to counter the "ruthless confrontation of the KPD".

Meanwhile, investigation of the Reichstag fire continued, with the National Socialists eager to uncover Comintern complicity. In early March 1933, three men were arrested who were to play pivotal roles during the Leipzig Trial, known also as "Reichstag fire trial," namely three Bulgarians: Georgi Dimitrov, 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.


Police inspecting the damaged interior of the Reichstag on 28 February

At 21:15 PM on February 27, 1933, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag was on fire. Despite the best efforts of the firemen, the building was gutted by the blaze. Only by 11:30 PM was the fire put out. The firemen and policemen inspected the ruins, and found twenty bundles of flammable material unburned laying about. At the time the fire was reported, Adolf Hitler was having dinner with Joseph Goebbels at Goebbels' apartment in Berlin. When Goebbels received a phone call informing him of the fire, he regarded it as a joke at first, and only after the second call did he report the news to Hitler. Hitler, Goebbels, the Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen and Prince Heinrich Günther von Hohenzollern were taken by car to the Reichstag where they were met by Hermann Göring.

Göring told Hitler "This is a Communist outrage! One of the Communist culprits has been arrested". Hitler called the fire a "sign from heaven", and claimed the fire was a Fanal (signal) meant to mark the beginning of a Communist Putsch (coup). The next day, the Prussian Press Service reported that "this act of incendiaryism 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"

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. As a consequence of the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Communist Party of Germany was banned on March 1, 1933 under the grounds that they were preparing a putsch. In the Reichstag elections held on March 5th, the National Socialist Party increased their share of the vote to 44 percent, which gave the NSDAP and their allies (including the German National People's Party who won 8 % of the vote) a majority of 52% in the Reichstag. The NSDAP emerged as winners, but they had fallen short of their goal, which was 50 % to 55 % of the vote. This would make it more difficult to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Enabling Act. Nevertheless, the Party were able to capitalize on national security concerns and obtain the additional support needed, thus granting Chancellor Hitler the right, if necessary, to rule by decree. The vote on the Act took place on March 23rd and only the Social Democrats opposed the measure, which came into effect on March 27th. Had the Communist Party participated, its representatives would have contributed 17% of the Reichstag votes. Instead, their representatives were under arrest for their suspect role in the Reichstag fire.

The Reichstag fire trial

Marinus van der Lubbe, the Dutch communist who set fire to the Reichstag

In July 1933, Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov, and Vassil Tanev were indicted on charges of setting the Reichstag on fire. From September 21 to December 23, 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. The accused were charged with arson and with attempting to overthrow the government.

Van der Lubbe's testimony was very hard to follow as he spoke of losing his sight in one eye, 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. Dimitrov began his testimony on the third day of the trial. Georgi Dimitrov 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 have 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 NSDAP Party, and frequently verbally clashed with Göring at the trial. The highpoint of the trial occurred on 4 November 1933 when Hermann Göring, Interior Minister of Prussia, took the stand, and was cross-examined by Dimitrov. 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!

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 exercised by the NSDAP 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 and (with the exception of Torgler, who was taken into “protective custody" by the Gestapo after the trial), were expelled to the Soviet Union, where they received a hero's welcome. In 1934, van der Lubbe was guillotined in a Leipzig prison yard on 10 January 1934. 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. It was presided over by Judge-President Roland Freisler.

In 1981, a West German court posthumously overturned van der Lubbe's 1933 conviction and found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

See also

  • Albert Norden, Jewish communist who invented the idea that it was an NSDAP "false flag" attack.

External links

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  1. German Documents on Foreign Affairs 1918-1945 by an editorial committee, Series C, vol.1, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, 1957, p.88-89.
  2. German Documents, 1957, p.95.
  3. German Documents, 1957, p.88-94.