Was the burning of the Reichstag the Nazis’ first crime?

On 27 February 1933, the German parliament – Reichstag – building was severely damaged as a result of arson. Portrayed by Adolf Hitler's cabinet as part of a Communist plot to overthrow the state, the fire was exploited to secure President von Hindenburg's approval for an emergency decree - the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State

The Reichstag building on fire

Popularly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree, it suspended freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to assembly, and permitted the regime to arrest and incarcerate political opponents without specific charge.

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The fire was blamed on 24-year-old Dutch Communist stonemason, Marinus van der Lubbe, who was arrested at the scene. But while he was initially dismissed abroad as a Nazi tool, post-war historians since the 1960s have largely judged him solely guilty – a lone arsonist exploited by Hitler.

In his book, Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery, professor of history and former trial lawyer, Benjamin Carter Hett, argues it was the Nazis who set fire to Reichstag in order to seize dictatorial power.

If correct, Hett’s argument sheds light on the Nazis as having calculated a much clearer route to power than has so far been realised.

Here, in an interview with History Extra, Hett reveals more about his findings, and explains how the burning of the parliament building paved the way for Germany’s Third Reich.

Q: What was the significance of the fire?

A: This was the moment that Hitler turned himself into a dictator. It was the event through which the Nazis issue the Decree for the Protection of the German People on 4 February 1933 – ‘The Reichstag Fire Decree’ – the fundamental legal basis for the Third Reich.

The question arises – who set the fire? It has been much like the John F Kennedy assassination, with conspiracy theories emerging.

The Nazis clearly benefited from the fire, so it was at first the prevailing view that they were responsible. But in the 1950s and 60s, historian Fritz Tobias came forward with the theory that Marinus van der Lubbe, a 24-year-old Dutch Communist stonemason arrested at the scene of the fire, acted alone.

This then became the accepted view.

But what I’m suggesting is that van der Lubbe was a stooge in someone else’s conspiracy – the Nazis.

Some historians have made their reputation on the theory that van der Lubbe acted alone, so they aren’t happy with me right now!

The Reichstag building on fire
The Reichstag building on fire after an arson attack in Berlin, Germany, 27 February 1933. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Q: Why do you believe the Nazis were responsible for the fire?

A: Chemists and engineers have always said that one person acting alone and possessing only matches and fire-lighters couldn’t have set the fire that destroyed the Plenary Chamber in just 15 minutes. They say the arsonist or arsonists had to have petrol or paraffin.

The side that argues van der Lubbe acted alone have never managed to bring in a fire expert of their own to credibly rebut that.

And if he wasn’t acting alone, the Nazis must have been involved – under the conditions of 1933, it is impossible to imagine that van der Lubbe could have had non-Nazi co-conspirators who could have both gained access to the Reichstag and then evaded the police thereafter.

Q: How did you come investigate this?

A: I got into it by chance. I was working on another book seven years ago when a friend of mine – a German trial lawyer – said he had been involved in a 1990s effort to reopen the fire trial to rehabilitate van der Lubbe. He said lawyers had managed to dig up evidence that van der Lubbe had not acted alone.

He said he still had the files, and asked if I would like to look at them. Naturally, I said yes.

I started to dig around, and found that the prosecutors’ files from the 1933 fire trial had become available. They had been moved from Moscow to East Berlin in the 1980s, and then made available to western researchers after the fall of the Wall.

You’re talking about 300 files – about 50,000 sheets of paper. I have sifted through the vast majority of them, but I’m only the third or fourth historian to have done so.

Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe
Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe with police officers outside the court. He was convicted for setting fire to the Reichstag building. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Q: How did it come to become accepted that van der Lubbe acted alone?

A: There are two reasons – firstly, since the 1960s the most authoritative historians have said that van der Lubbe was solely responsible. Academic politics is such that few have wanted to contest that established view.

Secondly, people on the other side who argue the Nazis were responsible haven’t done themselves any favours. In the 1970s the famous Luxembourg Committee used forged documents to make its case against the Nazis. When this became clear, they had only discredited themselves.

So since the 1960s – and especially since the 1980s – the view moved from the Nazis being responsible to van der Lubbe acting alone.

Q: You describe the fire as ‘the Third Reich’s enduring mystery’. Why has the mystery prevailed? Is it because of a lack of evidence?

A: Partly, yes. Until the 1990s there was a relative lack of reliable evidence for historians to use. In the absence of actual evidence, all sorts of theories emerged to fill that ‘space’.

There has also been non-academic pressure on historians to uphold the view that van der Lubbe was solely responsible.

Fritz Tobias was the first to effectively publicise the van der Lubbe theory, and his account of the fire has, until now, been the standard. But Tobias was not a professional historian – he was a senior German intelligence official, and a friend and colleague of a number of ex-Nazi police officers.

He used his official power to intimidate historians who suggested the Nazis were responsible for the fire, and to threaten them.

As an intelligence official, Tobias had access to classified information that mere mortals couldn’t get. From reading a number of his letters to a reporter at the German magazine Der Spiegel, I realised he actually blackmailed the director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich – Helmut Krausnick – who had, in the 1930s, been a member of the Nazi party. Krausnick’s party membership was not public knowledge at the time.

These letters are in the archives of the Spiegel in Germany, and – like everything in the Spiegel’s archive – only became available to researchers in the past decade.

Q: And why, do you think, no one has really looked into this before?

A: Many historians have avoided the subject because there has been a really unusually nasty argument about it for decades in Germany. As I said earlier, a number of historians have made their careers on the basis van der Lubbe was solely responsible, and they’re not going to let that go. I think many outside historians don’t want any part of it.

For me, this started out of curiosity. I had just got tenure [an arrangement that protects academic freedom] at the time, so I joked to my friends that this was my ‘tenure project’. I could look into this without getting fired.

I am looking forward to seeing how historians respond. I dare to think I might change some people’s minds, but to be honest I would just like us to approach the truth on the basis of evidence, not prejudice or self-interest. The fire is an important moment in history.

I don’t particularly care if someone agrees with me. Argument is the lifeblood of history. But the evidence seems to me quite clear that the Nazis were responsible for the fire, and if you want to disagree, you have to deal with the evidence.

The burned down plenary sessions hall of the Reichstag. Berlin, Germany
The burned down plenary sessions hall of the Reichstag. Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Q: How long have you been working on this book?

A: I’ve been working on it since 2007, and the book was finalised in 2012. I explored 25 archives in Germany, Switzerland, Britain and the USA.

I explored documents from the 1933 investigation into the fire. These have only been available to researchers since the mid-1990s, and few historians have looked at them.

I also visited Fritz Tobias twice, in 2008 and 2009, and read through some of his personal papers, as well as letters written by Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo, in his private collection.

Q: What do you think would have happened had the finger of blame for the fire not moved away from the Nazis?

A: For Germans, the fire had an incredible emotional impact. For a lot of Germans it was an incredibly important moment – for them it meant the onset of a dictatorship.

And for people outside Germany, it was a step towards the Second World War.

Q: What would it mean if your theory were correct?

A: I think that if my argument is right, we see that the Nazis had a much clearer idea of how they were going to get to power than most historians think today. Most tend to think the Nazis made it up as they went along, but this suggests they had a clearer method, and were more calculating about seizing power than we realise.

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It would shift our understanding of the Nazis overall.