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.”