Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Reichstag on fire

Eighty years ago today, the Reichstag building in Berlin, which had housed the German Diet since its opening in 1894, suffered a major arson attack. The newly-elected German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, blamed a Communist Party conspiracy and quickly won support for emergency measures to restrict civil liberties, thus allowing him to make mass arrests. The Reichstag fire is considered an early and important turning point in the Nazi story. Widely available is the diary entry for that day by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment. Also, though, US historian John L. Heineman has made available online two diary texts. One of these is by a young writer who reports on his father’s cynicism regarding the Nazi’s response to the fire; and the other is by a young housewife, married to a Jew, who is clearly being so affected by the Nazi propaganda that she is frightened of the communists and even believes the US and Britain should send money to help Germany fight Bolshevism.

The Reichstag building opened in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet, and it did so until 27 February 1933 when it was severely damaged in a fire started by Marinus van der Lubbe, a young and mentally handicapped Dutchman who also was a communist. Thereafter, the building was rarely used, except for propaganda purposes; and then it was further damaged during Second World War air raids. A reconstruction took place in the first half of the 1960s, but with West Germany’s capital in Bonn, there was little use for the building. However, in October 1990, it was the site chosen for the official German reunification ceremony. The following year, Germany decided to shift its capital back to Berlin, and this led to a high profile project to rebuild the Reichstag. It was opened in 1999, with the Bundestag convening officially for the first time on 19 April. According to the Reichstag’s Wikipedia entry, the building is now the second most visited attraction in Germany, not least because of the huge glass dome that was erected on the roof as a gesture to the original 1894 cupola.

The 1933 Reichstag fire remains a much studied historical event, partly because it proved so pivotal in the Nazi’s fortunes, and partly because no definitive version of the events leading to the fire has yet been arrived at. On the night of the fire, police found van der Lubbe in the building, and his communist sympathies were quickly established. Adolf Hitler, who had only come to power four weeks earlier, used the arson attack to pressure President Paul von Hindenburg for emergency measures to tackle the communist threat. The following day a decree was passed ‘for the protection of the people and state’ which dispensed with all constitutional protection of political, personal and property rights. Encyclopædia Britannica says this was the day Hitler’s dictatorship began. Communists were very quickly rounded up, even those sitting in parliament, thus allowing the Nazis to take their seats and establish a parliamentary dominance.

The following autumn, van der Lubbe and others (indicted for their roles in the communist plot to burn down the Reichstag) were tried in Leipzig before judges from the old German Imperial High Court. Only van der Lubbe was found guilty, and subsequently beheaded by guillotine; others, though not found guilty, were expelled to the Soviet Union. Hitler, angered by the trial’s outcome, established a new forum for treason (and other offences), the People’s Court, which would hand down many death sentences in the years to come.

To this day, historians continue to debate over the events of that night. Many argue that van der Lubbe was part of an elaborate plot not by communists but by the Nazis, to give them an excuse to crack down on civil liberties in general and the communists in particular, and this theory, in various guises, was favoured for many years. However, nowadays, there seems to be more of a consensus towards the idea that, after all, that responsibility for the fire rests with van der Lubbe alone. There is a wealth of information online about the fire: Wikipedia has a good summary of the main facts; the World Socialist Web Site has a review of a book providing ‘authoritative evidence’ on the Nazi involvement; and, for a more detailed account, try Fritz Tobias’s The Reichstag Fire with an introduction by A. J. P. Taylor at the WN Library website.

Online, I have found references to three diarists who wrote an entry on/about that day. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda genius, kept a detailed diary, although the entry about that day is rather short. It can be found on the Mae Brussel website, or at Googlebooks in William L. Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, 1960) which makes extensive use of Goebbels’ diaries. More information on these diaries can be found from The Diary Junction or Wikipedia.

Here is Goebbel’s diary extract in Shirer’s narrative: ‘On the evening of February 27, four of the most powerful men in Germany were gathered at two separate dinners in Berlin. In the exclusive Herrenklub in the Vosstrasse, Vice-Chancellor von Papen was entertaining President Hindenburg. Out at Goebbels’ home, Chancellor Hitler had arrived to dine en famille. According to Goebbels, they were relaxing, playing music on the gramophone and telling stories. “Suddenly,” he recounted later in his diary, “a telephone call from Dr. Hanfstaengl: ‘The Reichstag is on fire!’ I am sure he is telling a tall tale and decline even to mention it to the Fuehrer.” ’

Much quoted also is this entry from Goebbels’ diary dated a few weeks earlier, 31 January 1933, the day after Hitler was named Chancellor: ‘In a conference with the Fuehrer we lay down the line for the fight against the Red terror. For the moment we shall abstain from direct countermeasures. The Bolshevik attempt at revolution must first burst into flame. At the proper moment we shall strike.’

John L. Heineman, Professor Emeritus retired from Boston College, maintains many web pages full of historical information, including one on the Nazi seizure of power. This includes extracts from the diaries of two young Germans: Erich Ebermayer, a novelist and playwright, and Frau Luise Solmitz, a housewife and former elementary school teacher married to an ex-pilot and decorated war hero, who was Jewish.

27 February 1933 (Ebermayer)

‘Suddenly at the beginning of the midnight news report, the radio announcer’s voice in great excitement proclaims: “The Reichstag Building is burning.” Every conversation in the small café ceases. We learn that the Reichstag in Berlin was today set afire by the Communists. The whole building is engulfed in flames. The dome threatens to collapse. One of the arsonists is already arrested; he is a young Dutch communist named van der Lubbe. We are all dumbfounded. How can anyone understand this insane act, shortly before the elections, shortly before the voting which Goebbels has so carefully prepared and called the “Day of the Awakening Volk.” What could have driven the communists to such a heroic act of despair! Didn’t they know that the Nazis would gladly welcome such an event?M accompanied me to the house....  My father was still working at his desk. I bring him the news. He was silent a few seconds, and then announced in his finest Bavarian dialect?: “Course, they’ve set it themselves....” But the arrested communist? Can they simply invent him?” From his fifty years of experience as a prosecuting attorney, my father smiles.’

28 February 1933 (Ebermayer)
‘In violation of the rights of parliamentary immunity, all Communist Reichstag members are arrested. All Communist Party functionaries are arrested. So too are the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. Why? Does the government assume that they stand behind the setting of the fire? Will the government claim that the Socialists encouraged and incited the arsonist? But no, it appears that we must stop trying to find rational arguments. The Revolution creates its own legalities.... Now for the first time since last night, the Revolution has truly begun.’

February 1933 (Solmitz)
‘The Communists have set the Reichstag on fire, a horrible fire, which has been deliberately started in various places in the building. The thoughts and hopes of most Germans is completely concentrating upon Hitler; his reputation soars to the stars; he is the savior for an evil and saddened German world.... When we ask people of every rank and educational background “Who are you voting for?”, [the answer] is always the same: “Why we’re voting for the same as everyone else, list #1, only Hitler.”  And a few cases, like us, are hesitating between #1 and #5 [DNVP]. …  An ordinary looking young man walked by, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, but all by himself singing in a booming voice a Nazi song. Franz said “It sounded like he was praying. It’s becoming a religion.” ’

1 March 1933 (Solmitz)
‘I telephones.... She never had any use for Hitler. I asked how her house was voting? She was almost insulted: “Why Hitler, naturally! No one else can even be considered. We must support his cause with all means!” This conversation decided me ... for all those who once would never even consider him are now voting for the man who has long been the only one who has really excited me politically, because without any formal program he wants exactly that which I want, and which Germany, also without any program, wants....

The government has issued a statement [on the Reichstag Fire].... Göring, speaking like an old, experienced official, reports in a dry yet completely serious fashion the horrible murderous plans of the Communists who have withdrawn into their stronghold of Hamburg. He began with the account of the raid on the Karl Liebknecht House, where the police found a complete system of subterranean passages and attic chambers.... Hundreds of implicating documents were uncovered: hostages to be taken from bourgeois families, wives and children of police officers to be used as shields, destruction of all cultural monuments just as in Russia palaces, museums, churches. They were to begin with the Reichstag. Twenty-eight different fires set there. The entire Communist leadership [in Germany] arrested. Thälmann has fled to Copenhagen. The Communists had intended to send armed groups of Reds into the villages to murder and burn, and then when the cities had been stripped of police, the terror would break out in the large municipalities: poison, boiling water, any implement from the most refined to the most primitive, would be turned into a weapon. It reads like a cops and robber story were it not for the fact that we have the case of Russia, which has experienced all the asiatic torture and orgy, which a German mind, even when sick, is incapable of devising, and, when healthy, is unable to believe.

If Italy, America, and England were clever, they would send us money right away, in order to fight Bolshevism. For our destruction will be their destruction! Göring says that he has not lost his nerve, and he won’t lose it. I hope the voters won’t lose their nerve and stay away from the polling booths out of fear. For truly the streets are today a battle field!’

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