Tobias Fritz - The Reichstag Fire

Author : Tobias Fritz
Title : The Reichstag Fire
Year : 1960

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The fire in the Debating Chamber of the Reichstag on 27 February 1933 has a place in all the history books. Historians, who find so much to disagree about, are for once in agreement, or were until the present book was published. National Socialists – Nazis for short – started the fire, we believed, in order to cause an anti-Communist panic in Germany and so to influence the general election, due on 5 March. The trick succeeded. The German electors took alarm. The Nazis got their majority, and Hitler was able to establish his dictatorship. The Reichstag fire not only explained the initial Nazi success. It also set the pattern for explanations of all Hitler’s later acts. We saw at every stage – over rearmament, over Austria, over Czechoslovakia, over Poland – the same deliberate and conspiratorial cunning which had been first shown on 27 February 1933. Historians, writing about Nazi Germany, did not look closely at the events of that night. They took the central fact for granted: Nazis set fire to the Reichstag; and there was an end of it. Most historians were less sure how the Nazis did it. They used some equivocal phrase: ‘we do not know exactly what happened’; ‘the details are still to be revealed’ – something of that sort. Much evidence was in fact available: police reports, fire inspectors’ reports, large excerpts from the proceedings of the High Court at Leipzig, kept by Dr Sack, Torgler’s counsel. Herr Tobias was the first to look at this evidence with an impartial eye. He took nothing for granted. He was not concerned to indict the Nazis, or for that matter to acquit them. He was that rare thing, a researcher for truth, out to find what happened. His book sticks closely to the events of 27 February and to the legal or sham-legal proceedings which followed. Some knowledge of the political background may be useful. The republican constitution, created at Weimar in 1919, gave Germany an electoral system of proportional representation. No single party ever obtained an absolute majority in the Reichstag. A series of coalitions governed Germany between 1919 and 1930. Coalition broke down under the impact of the world depression. The Social Democrats refused to carry through deflation; their former associates insisted on it. Brüning, a member of the Centre (Roman Catholic) Party, became Chancellor and imposed deflation by emergency decrees, without possessing a majority in the Reichstag. Discontent mounted. Nazis and Communists fought in the streets. In May 1932 Brüning proposed to dissolve the private armies of these two parties by emergency decree. The elderly Field-Marshal Hindenburg, President since 1925, refused. He feared that conflict with the private armies would bring the real army into politics; and this he was determined to avoid. Brüning was dismissed. Papen, another member of the Centre, became Chancellor. He, too, relied on emergency decrees. He dissolved the Reichstag in the hope of winning wider support. His hope was not fulfilled. The Nazis won 37.3 per cent of the votes cast on 31 July – their highest vote in a free election – and 230 seats in the Reichstag. Papen tried to tempt Hitler with an offer of subordinate office. Hitler refused. Papen dissolved the Reichstag again. This time the Nazis did not do so well. On 6 November they received only 33 per cent of the vote and 196 seats. Once more Hitler was offered office. Once more he refused. Papen now proposed to prorogue the Reichstag and to govern solely by Presidential decree. The army leaders declared that they would be unable to maintain order. Papen resigned. Schleicher, Hindenburg’s military adviser, took his place. Schleicher tried to strengthen his government by negotiating with trade union officials and with a few Nazis who had lost faith in Hitler. The negotiations came to nothing. On 28 January 1933 he confessed to Hindenburg that he, too, would have to rule by emergency decree. Meanwhile Papen, still intimate with Hindenburg though out of office, had been negotiating more successfully with Hitler. Hitler agreed to join a coalition government of National Socialists and Nationalists. On 30 January he became Chancellor. This was not a seizure of power. Hitler was intrigued into power by respectable politicians of the old order – principally by Papen and also by more obscure advisers round Hindenburg. Papen had, he thought, taken Hitler prisoner. There were only three Nazis in a cabinet of eleven; the key posts of foreign minister and minister of defence were in the hands of non-political experts, loyal to Hindenburg; and Hitler was not to visit Hindenburg except in the company of Papen, the Vice-Chancellor. Nazis and Nationalists together did not have a majority. Hitler urged that yet another general election would give them a majority, and thus relieve Hindenburg from the embarrassment of issuing emergency decrees any longer. The constitutional system would be restored. This, after all, had been the object of making Hitler Chancellor. Once more the Reichstag was dissolved. The Nazis now reaped the advantage of being in the government. Göring, Hitler’s chief assistant, became head of the Prussian police; and the police naturally hesitated to act firmly against the Nazi ruffians in their brown shirts. Violence became one-sided. Communist and Social Democrat meetings were broken up. The Nazis made much of the Communist danger as an election cry. They alleged that the Communists were planning an armed rising. On 23 February the police, on Göring’s orders, raided Communist headquarters in order to discover evidence of this plan. They found none. On 27 February the Reichstag went up in flames. Here, it seemed, was the decisive evidence against the Communists, provided perhaps by Heaven. Hitler announced the existence of a revolutionary conspiracy. Emergency decrees were passed, authorizing the arrest of dangerous politicians. Communists and others were sent to labour camps. As a matter of fact, the fire had singularly little effect on the general election of 5 March. The Social Democrats and Centre held their previous vote practically intact. The Communists had 70 deputies instead of 100. The National Socialist vote increased to 43.9 per cent. Even with the Nationalists, who also increased their vote a little, Hitler had only a bare majority in the Reichstag. This was not enough for him. Hitler wished to carry an Enabling Law which would empower him to govern by decrees and thus make him a dictator by constitutional process. This Law needed a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. The Communists were prevented from attending. The Social Democrats attended, and were solid against the Enabling Law. Decision rested with the 102 deputies of the Centre. They were lured by promises of security for Roman Catholic schools, and voted for the Law. Hitler obtained his two-thirds majority. He soon pushed aside the restrictions which Papen had tried to place upon him. He dislodged, or discredited, the Nationalist ministers; banned all parties in Germany except the National Socialist; and gradually engrossed all power in his own hands. The consequences for Germany and the world are known to us all. On a cool retrospect, the burning of the Reichstag occupies a comparatively small place in the story of Hitler’s rise to absolute power. He was Chancellor before the fire occurred; it did not much affect the electors; and they did not give him the crushing majority which he needed. The passing of the Enabling Law, not the general election, was the moment of decision. But these were not cool days. A democratic system was being destroyed in the full glare of publicity. Berlin was thronged with newspaper correspondents from foreign countries, eager for stories. With nerves on edge, everyone expected conspiracies by everyone else. The fire at the Reichstag supplied the most dramatic story of a dramatic time. It was naturally built up beyond its merits. For instance, we talk to this day as though the entire Reichstag, a great complex of rooms and building, was destroyed. In fact, only the Debating Chamber was burnt out; and the burning of a Chamber, with wooden panels, curtains dry with age, and a glass dome to provide a natural draught, was not surprising. Many other similar halls have burnt in an equally short space of time, from the old House of Commons in 1834 to the Vienna Stock Exchange a few years ago. A prosaic explanation of this kind did not suit the spirit of the time. People wanted drama; and there had to be drama. There was, on the surface, no great mystery about the burning of the Reichstag. An incendiary was discovered: van der Lubbe, a young Dutchman. He gave a coherent account of his activities. This account made sense both to the police officers who examined him and to the fire chiefs who handled the fire. It did not suit either the Nazis or their opponents that van der Lubbe should have started the fire alone. Hitler declared, from the first moment, that the Communists had set fire to the Reichstag. They, knowing that they had not, returned the compliment and condemned the fire as a Nazi trick. Thus both sides, far from wanting to find the truth about the fire, set out on a search for van der Lubbe’s accomplices. The German authorities arrested Torgler, leader of the Communists in the Reichstag, and three Bulgarian Communists. One of them, Dimitrov, was chief European representative of the Communist International, though the Germans did not know this. The four men were accused, along with van der Lubbe, before the High Court at Leipzig. The prosecution was not interested in establishing the guilt of van der Lubbe. This was both self-evident and unimportant. The prosecution was after the four Communists. It was essential to demonstrate that van der Lubbe could not have acted alone. Most of the evidence was directed to this point. It convinced the Court, and has continued to convince most of those who examined the case later. Van der Lubbe, everyone decided, had accomplices. The prosecution, however, failed to establish that the accomplices were the four men in the dock. All four were acquitted. Van der Lubbe was convicted, and executed by virtue of a special law, made retrospective for his case. His capital crime was not to have set fire to the Reichstag, but to have had accomplices in doing so. The opponents of the Nazis outside Germany were quick to point the moral. Everyone now agreed that van der Lubbe had accomplices. The accomplices had not been found, despite all the labours of the German criminal police and the German High Court. From this it clearly seemed to follow that the accomplices were not being sought in the right place. They were, in fact, the Nazis themselves. Here was a splendid opportunity for anti-Nazi propaganda. Communist exiles used it to the full. They organized a countertrial in London, and provided evidence for it as lavishly as Stalin did for the great ‘purge’ trials in Russia later. Many of those who manufactured the evidence did so in good faith. They argued that the Nazis were immeasurably wicked (which they were) and that they had set fire to the Reichstag. They must have done it in a certain way; and the evidence before the counter-trial, though actually conjecture not fact, merely showed what this way was. In those days many of us were passionately anti-Nazi, and were ready to believe any evil of them. We had, as yet, little experience of how the Communists manufactured evidence when it suited their purpose. Men of good will accepted the verdict of the counter-trial; and though they were later disillusioned by the ‘purges’, by the post-war trials in eastern Europe, or by the Hungarian rising in 1956, some are reluctant to admit that they were taken for a ride by the Communists as early as 1933. Much of the evidence accepted by the counter-trial has now been discredited. Everyone, for instance, now recognizes the Oberfohren Memorandum and the confession of Karl Ernst, both discussed in detail by Herr Tobias, as Communist forgeries. The central argument remains unassailed: van der Lubbe could not have set fire to the Reichstag alone. Yet the proof of this rests mainly on the evidence placed before the Leipzig High Court. The Nazis unwittingly convicted themselves; and anyone who believes in their guilt is relying on evidence which the Nazis provided – or manufactured. ...

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