On This Day – February 27, 1933 – Reichstag Fire

Monday, February 27, 1933 at Berlin – Tiergarten

Reichstag on February 27, 1933

It was 87 years ago today that one of the most controversial events in modern German history occurred when the Reichstag – the national parliament building and symbol of Germany’s young democracy – was the target of an arson attack just shy of a month after Hitler’d been appointed Chancellor of Germany.

The person apprehended at the scene and the one whom the Nazis not only blamed for the crime but eventually executed for it, was a 23 year old unemployed Dutch construction worker named Marinus van der Lubbe who had been on a lengthy trek across Central Europe, trying to work his way to the Soviet Union, a state which he greatly admired. As a teenager, he trained to become a mason, entered the Dutch labor movement and joined the Communist youth movement not long thereafter. But he soon came to dislike the party’s strict code of discipline and authoritarian structure, and left it in 1931 to join a radical anarchy-syndicalist organization. After getting as far as Poland, decided to head back west and arrived in Berlin on February 18, 1933.

With the Nazis in power, he felt that the left was being ruthlessly suppressed. A believer in direct actions since his anarchy-syndicalist days, he thought it was time for the unemployed and those who felt deserted on all levels to protest against the bourgeois state and send a direct blow to it, and he decided that he was going to be the one to do it.

Marinus van der Lubbe

Arson was the method he chose.

After unsuccessfully attempting to burn down a welfare office in the Berlin district of Neukoelln, and then that district’s city hall, and finally the former Berlin royal palace three days prior, he decided to spend his last remaining money on matches and lighters on the morning of the 27th, and as historian Richard J. Evans would write – “he sought out the supreme symbol of the bourgeois political order that, he thought, had made his life and that of so many other unemployed young men a misery, and decided to burn down the Reichstag.”

Even though several leading historians on the subject, like Evans, believe that van der Lubbe most likely set the fire, it still isn’t exactly certain that he had. Yet, what’s important to see is the bigger picture in all of this.

Berlin police officers investigating the fire

The Reichstag fire came one week before the very critical March 5th national elections were going to take place – elections on which the Nazis were banking (as already the largest party currently in the Reichstag) to increase their representation in the parliament and win a 2/3 majority of the seats so that they themselves could democratically vote out the democracy and install a one party dictatorship under Hitler. Yet, this fire came as a godsend to Hitler and the Nazis as it conveniently enabled them to use the fire as a pretext that a communist uprising was occurring and thus convince President Paul von Hindenburg to take action the following day by using his presidential powers to evoke Article 48 (an article that allowed the Weimar president to legally rule by decree) of the Weimar Constitution and as a result, suspend basic civil liberties and essentially bestow ultimate power to the Cabinet (i.e. Hitler).

Therefore, after the Nazis successfully convinced old Hindenburg that the government was under attack, Hindenburg issued the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (also referred to as the the Reichstag Fire Decree) to:

– Immediately put restrictions on free expression of opinions, including the freedom of the press and on the right of assembly and association
– House searches without warrants were now permissible
– Mail and telephone privacy now suspended
– Restrictions on property rights were now permissible beyond all legal limits.

In other words, the Reichstag Fire Decree would now ultimately serve as the “legal” basis for the imprisonment of anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis including politicians, journalists, writers and basically anyone who’d been loyal to the Weimar constitution. This decree, ‘valid until further notice,’ would now provide the legal pretext for everything that was about to be unleashed in the next few months as the National Socialists continued on their path to seize ultimate power in absolute earnest.

Public notice of the Reichstag Fire Decree

Moreover, because of the events that would unfold so perfectly well for Hitler and the Nazis after the fire – as they now began to eliminate anyone who stood in their way of establishing a one party state – this is why it’s believed that van der Lubbe didn’t set the fire, but rather it was the Nazis themselves. Books have been published on this and students working on PhDs have argued this; yet at the end of the day, we’ll never know for sure who was fully responsible – it’s indeed one of the greatest mysteries of modern German history.

Professor Eric Weitz and author of the book, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy once said in a lecture: “It’s not so important to understand who set the fire; it’s more important to understand who benefited from it – which of course were the Nazis.”

On This Day – March 21, 1933 – “Day of Potsdam”

Tuesday, March 21, 1933 at Potsdam, Germany

Hitler and Hindenburg at the Day of Potsdam – March 21, 1933

With the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (The Reichstag Fire Decree) only 22 days old and having served as the “legal” basis for the arrests of thousands of opponents of the Nazis up until that point, Hitler and the National Socialists were on the brink of fully recruiting the remaining nationalist parties in the Reichstag to pass a law that would turn over all  government functions to Hitler himself.

Before this could happen, as far as Hitler was concerned, a ceremony that would underscore the National Socialists’ politics of propaganda and terror needed to be triumphantly held to illustrate a glorified connection between the traditional powers of the “old Reich” and Hitler’s “young” and “dynamic” Nazi movement.

Potsdam’s Garrison Church around 1900. This was the place where the likes of Napoleon and Russian Tsar Nicholas I came to pay their respects to Frederick the Great, whose memorial statue is in the foreground

Always the dramatist, Nazi propaganda head Josef Goebbels staged the inauguration of the new Reichstag (following the national election of 5 March) in the “Day of Potsdam” by convincing President Paul von Hindenburg to go to Potsdam and give his blessing to the new Nazi regime 86 years ago today. Even today’s date – March 21 – had symbolic significance to the “old Reich” for it was the date on which Otto von Bismarck had first opened the all-German Reichstag following the German Unification of 1871.

In addition to a motorcade parade through Potsdam, the main ceremony took place in the Garrison Church, located just blocks away from the Potsdam City Palace – which had served as the second official seat of the dynastic Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Kings of Prussia, and German Emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for nearly three centuries. Moreover, the Garrison Church had been the final resting place of Hitler’s hero and one of the most influential monarchies in European history, Frederick the Great.

An unusually well-dressed Hitler and his new cabinet on their way to the Garrison Church. Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen is immediately to his left

With the last Crown Prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty – along with his brothers – in attendance, the ceremony got underway just after noon local time. Hindenburg marched down the nave of the church while decked out in his gray field marshal’s uniform and carrying his spiked helmet in his left hand. Just before reaching the church’s Imperial Gallery, the old general paused and saluted the empty pew of the last Prussian King and German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Hindenburg then reached the altar, turned, and gave a brief homily that would consecrate the Nazi regime:

Reich President Paul von Hindenburg of the “old Reich” opening the new Reichstag at the Day of Potsdam

“May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself.”

Hitler, who was wearing a black suit with striped pants (a far cry from his usual brown stormtrooper uniform and high boots), responded with:

“Neither the Kaiser nor the government nor the nation wanted the war. It was only the collapse of the nation which compelled a weakened race to take upon itself, against its most sacred convictions, the guilt for this war.”

Having gone to the altar himself, Hitler looked down on Hindenburg, who had taken a seat in the front pew near Goebbels and Reichstag President Hermann Goering. Hitler then looked at Hindenburg and addressed the “old Reich” directly:

Hitler addressing the new Reichstag – in particular, Reich President Hindenburg

“By a unique upheaval in the last few weeks, our national honor has been restored and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated. We pay you homage. A protective providence places you over the new forces of our nation.” 

After uttering these words, Hitler stepped down from the altar, bowed to Hindenburg, and shook his hand – producing one of the most infamous photographs in modern history.

Yet at the end of the day, this melodrama inside the Garrison Church at Potsdam was more than a triumphant ceremony. This was the moment in which Hitler – the leader of the young and dynamic Nazi movement – proclaimed the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich” in the presence of the symbols of Germany’s glorified past.

A national mood of euphoria in this new “Volksgemeinschaft” (People’s Community) had been born and it unfortunately resonated with broad parts of German society throughout the country. Along with this wave of enthusiasm, the collective optimism of the German people – which hadn’t been felt since 1914 – began to blossom as well, with only limited opposition to this new national hysteria.

Alas, Nazi Germany had now come into existence.

On this day – February 24, 1920 – The National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) Is Founded

Tuesday, February 24, 1920 at Munich, Germany

It was exactly 100 years ago today that Adolf Hitler delivered the Nazi Party’s 25 Point Platform to around 2,000 people in Munich’s famous beerhall, the Hofbräuhaus. This event is often regarded as the founding of the Nazi Party.

 
The world famous Hofbräuhaus was founded in 1589 by Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria

The Nazi Party’s roots actually go back to March 7, 1918 when political factions with exotic names were popping up all over Germany at the end of WWI. One of these was called the “Free Labor Committee for a Good Peace,” which was founded by a Munich locksmith named Anton Drexler. The little party consisted of some forty railwaymen and different friends of Drexler who were all banded together in a spirit of fierce nationalism, anti-Semitism, and support for the war effort.

Following the German defeat in WWI, however, the “Free Labor Committee for a Good Peace” reinvented itself and became the “German Worker’s Party (DAP)”. It was on September 12, 1919, that Hitler stumbled upon Drexler’s party after his military superiors had sent him to investigate it to draw up a report on its activities.

 

Beerhalls in Munich were the acceptable place for political parties to meet in those days, mostly due to their sheer size. Some enormous establishments, like the Hofbräuhaus, could seat 2,000 or more people and they often had platforms for orchestras, which could be instantly transformed into podiums for politicians.

He would eventually join the party and become its 55th party member on January 1, 1920.

 

Hitler quickly helped Drexler to realize that the party had to have a clear program (which it certainly didn’t have at the time) in order for it to have an effective voice. Together, the two men would sit down and write the 25 Points of their party’s program, which was completed on February 6. 1920.

 

Among preaching nationalism in its highest form, the 25 Points focused on calling on Germany to reject the Treaty of Versailles, that Germany take back its territories that had been lost after WWI, and that only those who have German blood can become citizens (which would exclude Jews).

Anton Drexler (1884-1942)

 

A little over two weeks later, on this day, Hitler gave the first reading of the 25 Points to a Hofbräuhaus that was filled to capacity; and even included a large number of communists spoiling for a fight among the around 2,000 people in attendance.

From this point onward the party would be referred to as the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (the Nazi Party) or (NSDAP), whose acronym would become a byword for tyranny of the greatest form, synonymous with the perishing of millions of innocent lives, and a movement responsible for one of the largest catastrophes – of unprecedented proportions – in world history.

On This Day: January 30, 1933 Adolf Hitler is Appointed German Chancellor

Berlin, 11:30AM, January 30. 1933, Wilhelmstraße 73

Hitler flanked by Göring to his right and von Papen to his left

Despite losing 2 million votes in the November national election of 1932 and thus losing 34 seats in the Reichstag in Berlin, the NSDAP still remained the largest and sadly the most popular political party at a time when economic and political instability riddled Germany’s young democracy. 

And after Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher failed to secure parliamentary support at the beginning of 1933, the Catholic Center Party’s leader, Franz von Papen, and his cronies, led negotiations with President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler German chancellor, believing that they could tame him by dominating his cabinet with the old conservative elite. 

And so #OTD 86 years ago at around 11:30 in the morning, arguably the biggest blow to Germany’s young democracy up until that point came when Hindenburg appointed Hitler as German Chancellor at the Presidential Palace on Wilhemstraße in Berlin. 

Hitler at the window of the Reich Chancellery while a crowd of supporters gather below

While Herman Göring and Wilhelm Frick were the only two other cabinet members from the NSDAP, the new Vice-chancellor, von Papen, continued to assure all doubters that the vulgar, uneducated and inexperienced in government Nazis would be easy to control stating, “You are wrong. We’ve engaged him for ourselves…within two months, we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.”

That Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor was no ordinary change of government became immediately clear, as his Propaganda Minister, Josef Göbbels, organized a torchlit parade consisting of members of the SA, SS, and Steel Helmets that went through the Brandenburg Gate and through Berlin. One pro-Nazi newspaper enthusiastically estimated that 700,000 marchers took part in the parade, while less than amused papers put the number at just over 100,000, and the hostile sources put the number of uniformed marchers at no more than 20,000. Crowds of onlookers lined the streets to watch the marchers and the spectacle was typical of the kind of stage-management which German society could now expect from Göbbels’s propaganda machine.

Uniformed marchers and curious onlookers watching the celebration parade at the Brandenburg Gate

Even the 86 year old Hindenburg, whose health was deteriorating fast and whose mind was becoming more senile by the day, took some interest in the parade. One of his entourage later told the British writer John Wheeler-Bennett:
He had been standing stiffly at the window for a while when his attention began to slip and his mind to wander back to the glorious early days. “Ludendorff!”, the befuddled old man said, “How well your men are marching, and what a lot of prisoners they’ve taken!”

WWI General and German President, Paul von Hindenburg


Needless to say, the person directly responsible for appointing Hitler as Chancellor of Germany earlier in the day was confused. But many people who took part in that evening’s celebration weren’t. Hindenburg was presented by the National press as the central figure in the jubilation, helping several people – who had felt nothing but shame and disgrace for the previous 14 years since the end of WWI – feel a revival of the spirit of 1914 that was felt at the outbreak of the Great War. These would all be sentiments with which every Nationalist could agree.

Unfortunately, von Papen’s and his cronies’ careless dismissal of Hitler and the NSDAP – as well as Hindenburg’s infamous appointment – can be seen as some of the vital roots to what would later become a world tragedy of unprecedented proportions.

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Blog Bibliography

Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Group ISBN 1-59420-004-1