1933 Reichstag fire

I was thinking about the 9/11 conspiracy theories and about historical instances of massive domestic destruction being staged by a political group to help it gain/increase power. What came to mind was the 1933 burning of the German Reichstag (the parliamentary building), which was attributed to communists and which was instrumental to Hitler’s coming to power. [Two disclaimers: (1) this is not intended to imply or suggest any similarity between the current US administration and the Nazi party; (2) 9/11 conspiracy theorization is emphatically not the subject of this thread, deal?)

Most of what I learned about this event came from William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (okay, I didn’t read the whole thing; that’s a long friggin’ book!). I can’t find the book at the moment, still living out of boxes as I am after moving, but my recollection is that a somewhat unhinged individual was found at the scene who identified as a communist and confessed to the act. He was subsequently executed along with several prominent communist party members. However, if I remember right, Shirer says clearly that the Nazis put the guy up to it and aided him in accomplishing it, thereby fomenting a fear of a communist revolution and enabling the Nazis to dissolve democratic institutions and seize absolute power by declaring a permanent state of emergency. Not unlike the Empire under Palpatine (believe it or not, I actualy thought that aspect of the SW prequel trilogy was fairly well-done – but that’s a topic for another forum…).

I went to the Wikipedia page to brush up on the details. I was surprised to find that the above interpretation is far from well-established; the article is in fact very tentative about there being any compelling evidence linking the Nazis with the Reichstag fire.

So my question for the history buffs frequenting these boards: is the Wikipedia page a reasonable depiction of the historical understanding of the event?

It seems to me to be of considerable historical interest whether there is a confirmed instance of a poliltical group orchestrating a massive terrorist act within their own country – again, I don’t want to engage in any debate about 9/11 (FWIW, I could never believe our current leaders capable of that – flawed men and women, yes, but not evil), but it’s useful to know the limits that humans will traverse in advancing their own interests.

Shirer was writing soon after the war, and went along with the general consensus at the time. There’s no doubt that the fire was extremely convenient to the Nazis.

But modern historians, with access to Nazi archives etc., aren’t so sure - many believe that the feeble minded Dutchman van der Lubbe (who was accused of starting the fire) did indeed do so on his own, and the Nazis just took advantage of a major stroke of luck (from their point of view).

Hermann Goering claimed some years later to have started the fire, but Goering was a notorious braggart. His claims can probably be discounted.

People often think mere opportunism is some sort of plot, but just because someone benefitted by some action, it doesn’t mean that that person was behind it.

Following that path leads to wherever you want it to lead, whether it makes sense or not. For instance, the Civil Rights Bill was dead in Congress until after JFK was assassinated. Does that mean the civil rights movement was behind his killing? They certainly benefitted by it. Nonsense.

The evidence seems to point to the fact that van der Lubbe was indeed guilty and acted on his own (he was convicted of the crime in an open and fair trial, for one thing). The Nazis used it as an excuse and made the most of it, but had nothing to do with starting it.

The Wikkipedia aricle is quite right to cast doubt on the theory that the Nazis set the Reichstag fire of 1933. That they took advantage of it to impose their terror dictatorship and attack other political parties is so obvious that it hardly needs to be argued. But that does not prove they set the fire.

One of the most common myths is that Marinus Van de Lubbe, who was executed for the crime, was a mentally defective idiot that the Nazis used as a scapegoat.

First, Marinus Van de Lubbe was in no way an idiot. He was a blue-collar Dutch Communist, but a self-taught and well-read young man.

In Reichstag Fire – The Ashes of Democracy, R. John Pritchard mentions that Marinus was converted to Communism around 16, and "was soon reading rather ponderous books which he borrowed from the Leiden public library.

After an industrial accident left him partly blind, he devoted all his energies to the communist cause and “he became well known as a speaker and organizing chairman at the Communist Party.” (Pritchard, op. cit )

Frankly, whether or not you like Communism, it is impossible to see Van der Lubbe as anything but an intelligent young man, given his activities. However, his lack of much formal education may have given him just the sort of “rough-and-ready” understanding of Communist doctrines that could have made him believe that burning down the Reichstag would somehow accomplish something for the “cause”. In other words, he was probably quite intelligent, but politically naiive.

If you google images of him during the trial, you will probably see him in an extremely dejected state, with his head hanging down, which would give people the impression he was mentally defective. Also, he had been tortured by the Gestapo who were trying to get him to admit that he was part of a wider conspiracy, so who knows what his mental state was?

As to his trial it is very important to note that he was THE ONLY COMMUNIST convicted by the German Court, in spite of the fact that the Nazi Government charged charged four communists with setting fire to the Reichstag. This included Ernst Torgler, the chairman of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) and Georgi Dimitrov of the Soviet Comintern. Torgler, by the way was brilliantly defended by – of all things – a NAZI named Dr. Alfons Sack, who was such a stereoptyped Nazi that he even wore a monocle! See if you can find an image of this guy. He looks like something out of a bad war movie. But he did his job as an honest defence lawyer and got the Communist leader acquitted.

All of them were acquitted except Van der Lubbe. This fairness and independence by the German Courts put Hitler into a rage, and encouraged him to found his bloody “People’s” (i.e. obedient Nazi) Courts.

So it is obvious that the trial was a fair one.

The idea that the Nazis set the fire and used the “mentally defective” Van der Lubbe as a fall guy fit in well with the strategy of the Communists in Germany. They did NOT want people associating Communism with arson, and would certainly not have ordered Van der Lubbe to do what he did. In fact, at the time he committed his crime, Van der Lubbe was not even a member of the main Communist movement but of a more radical splinter group of anarchists called the Party of International Communists.

German Communists wanted to come across as a good, responsible party to vote for, not a bunch of wild-eyed fire-setting anarchists.

It is true that right after WWII, there were a lot of Germans who said they believed the Nazis had set the fire. But right after the War was not a good time for former German government officials and others in the know to give the impression they were trying to “unblame” the Nazis for anything.

But from a more detached posiotion decades later, it would appear that Van der Lubbe was an intelligent but wild Communist/Anarchist radical unconnected with the main Communist International who acted alone, thereby handing Hitler a heaven-sent excuse to crush other political parties.

Yes, history CAN be that simple!.

One thing the Nazis were undeniably good at was being skilled opportunists. They had a gift for seizing random occurrences and twisting them to advance their agenda.

It’s good to set the record straight as to the NAZI’s part, or lack of it, in starting the fire, but that’s really irrelevant. As the Wiki article points out, it was used as an excuse to activate the Enabling Act which gave Hitler sole power in Germany.

It sounds a lot like a case of, if you don’t support our proposals you are helping the communists take over Germany. Are you with Germany or are you with the communists?