The Reichstag fire took place on February 27th 1933. The Reichstag building was where Germany’s parliament sat and the fire that destroyed it has to be seen as one of the defining moments in the early days of Nazi Germany.
The Reichstag was the heart of German politics. Debates, political struggles, political scheming etc. all took place in the Reichstag. It was no different from many national government buildings in Europe and its destruction would have had great symbolic significance for many.
Hitler had made it clear in the days immediately prior to January 30th 1933 that he would not be able to work with the Reichstag that had been elected in the November 1932 election. While the Nazi Party was the largest single party in it, this did not give Hitler a working majority as the two largest parties after the Nazis were both on the left – the Social Democrat Party and the Communist. New elections for the Reichstag had been called for March 5th 1933. The danger for Hitler was that he might not get as much support in the new election as in the previous one. He was playing a dangerous political game that could have ended his political career.
On the night of February 27th Hitler and Goebbels were having dinner at Goebbel’s Berlin home. Just after 21.00, Goebbels received a phone call from Dr. Hansfstaengl that the Reichstag building was on fire. Goebbels later claimed that he felt the news was so fanciful that he did not inform Hitler even though he was in the same house. It was only when he received another phone call that confirmed the news, that Goebbels informed Hitler. They immediately left for the Reichstag where they met Goering. All three declared that the fire was the work of the Communists and Socialists and the SA was put on alert to maintain order if and when the communist insurrection started.
Rudolf Diels, head of the Prussian Political Police, arrived after Hitler, Goebbels and Goering. Diels later claimed that Goering told him that the fire was the start of a communist revolt and that “not a moment must be lost.” Diels claimed that Hitler completely lost his temper and shouted “as I have never seen him do before” that he would show no mercy to those responsible. Diels claimed that Hitler ordered that every communist official should be “shot where he is found” and that “communist deputies must be hanged this very night”. It is said that Hitler also ordered no leniency for the Social Democrats. (‘Lucifer ante Portas’ by Diels published in 1950).
The SA did what was required of it and rounded up as many communists as they could find – nearly 4000 people. “Arrests upon arrests. Now the Red pest is being thoroughly rooted out.” (Goebbels) As with nearly all that they did, the Nazis tried to put a legal gloss over what was being done. The public was told that the communists had burned down the seat of government in Germany and that the police and the SA were doing all that they could to save the nation from unrest and catastrophe.
The Nazis also captured the alleged perpetrator of the crime – a Dutch communist called Marius van der Lubbe. He, along with four other communists, was charged with arson. The four others were later acquitted but van der Lubbe had to stand trial.
Curiously during his interrogation by the Prussian Political Police in the immediate aftermath of the fire, van der Lubbe offered a free and full confession that Rudolf Diels found so fanciful that he refused to accept it, describing van der Lubbe as a “maniac”. Diels claimed that when he reported his views to Hitler, he was told that they were “childish” and wrong. It was Hitler’s way of telling Diels that van der Lubbe’s confession had to stand. Van der Lubbe claimed that he was angry with the way communists were being treated in Germany.
“I had to do something myself. I considered arson a suitable method. I did not wish to harm private people but something belonging to the system itself. I decided on the Reichstag. As to the question of whether I acted alone, I declare emphatically that this was the case.”
He was accused of starting at least twelve fires in the Reichstag and put on trial in late November.
At his trial, van der Lubbe again said:
“I can only repeat that I set fire to the Reichstag all by myself. There is nothing complicated about this fire. It has quite a simple explanation. What was made of it may be complicated, but the fire itself was very simple.”
Van der Lubbe was found guilty and executed in January 1934.
However, some believe that van der Lubbe did not start the fire. At the Nuremburg War Trials, General Franz Halder claimed that in 1942, he had been invited to attend a birthday lunch for Hitler. The lunch invite was also extended to senior Nazi Party members, one of whom was Hermann Goering. Halder claimed that he clearly heard Goering boasting that he had been responsible for the fire. However, if this is true it may have been done by the ever vain Goering to impress Hitler. Martin Sommerfeldt, who worked in the Ministry of the Interior in Berlin, believed it was carried out by men of the SA on the orders of Goebbels to boost the party’s election chances in March 1933. Men from the SS then killed the SA men involved to ensure that no witnesses survived. Sommerfeldt claimed that his story was backed by Berlin Gestapo chief, Rudolf Diels who even knew where the bodies were.
The Reichstag ceased to have any form of function after the fire and it most certainly could not be used as a base for the seat of government in Germany. The nearest large building that could accommodate all the deputies was the Kroll Opera House.
The March 5th election went ahead as planned but now in the shadow of the ‘attempted communist revolt’. Even so, the Nazis only polled 288 seats and in the unlikely event that all the other parties voted as one against the Nazis, they would have lost the vote. It was a situation that Hitler was not prepared to tolerate or risk. He had already decided that the Reichstag as a properly working entity should cease to exist and be replaced by himself – all ‘legally’ done via the Enabling Act of March 1933.