Fall of the Weimar Republic
Weimar Republic Links
Reichstag Fire from a sympathiser of the US militias

Reichstag Fire

Initial situation

Hitler is Chancellor but Nazis are only a minority in the government. They crucially control the Ministry of the Interior of Prussia (Prussia had been brought under direct rule the previous summer as the result of an emergency decree by Hindenburg, the President). This gives control of the police in two thirds of Germany to the Nazis.

What happened

On the 27th February the Reichstag is empty as it had been in recess since December. At around 20:30 one of the caretakers checks the building and finds nothing unusual. At 20:50 a postman is passing the entrance to the session chamber and notices nothing unusual.

At 21:05 a student sees a man carrying a burning brand on the first floor. By 21:14 the fire alarm is received by the local firestation and the firemen are in the building by 21:24 but fires are breaking out everywhere. At 21:27 there is a huge explosion and the great chamber is enveloped by flames. In the rear of the building a half naked dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe is discovered and arrested. He claims to have done it as "a protest".

Hitler and Goring arrive on the scene. Goring at once accuses the communists. The next day the ageing President signs a decree which allows the nazis to suspend freedom of speech which they use to ban virtually the entire opposition press. Communists are arrested wholesale though the party is not banned until after the elections so that the left vote will remain split.

Did the communists do it?

Torgler, the chairman of the Communist deputies to the Reichstag and a number of other communists are arrested including several Bulgarians. There is absolutely no evidence that they were involved and at the trial bought by the Nazis collapsed some months latter the prosecution case collapsed for this reason.

Did the van der Lubbe act alone?

That Lubbe was guilty there is little doubt. Not only was he discovered on the spot he also proudly claimed responsibility. But he did have a history of taking responsibility for things he had not done. While working for the Tielmann factory a strike broke out. Van der Lubbe claimed to the management to be one of the ringleaders and offered to accept any punishment as long as no one else was victimised even though he was clearly too inexperienced to have been seriously involved. During the trial he seemed to concerned only to establish his sole responsibility and was almost hostile to any attempts to get him off. In short he seems to have been suffering from a mental disorder that led him to seek both fame and the role of victim.

But did he act alone? The Reichstag fire was clearly well planned and speedily done. The building had clearly been prepared in advance with some kind of inflammatory chemical and this had been done quickly and smoothly. Van der Lubbe might well have been able to run round with a brand once others had prepared the building for the conflagration. It is doubtful however if any one person could have managed to complete the preparation in the limited time available and it was clearly quite beyond van der Lubbe. He was half blind as a result of a unpleasant act of bullying when some of his fellow workers put a mason's sack over his head and the chalk dust permanently damaged his eyes He had to bring a piece of paper to within a couple of inches of his eyes before he could read it. He showed himself barely capable of organising his own life let alone the smooth operation that the Reichstag fire clearly was.

It is true he made several attempts to swim the channel. These consisted him greasing himself up in front of the press, swimming a short distance out and then returning to announce that the currents were currently unfavourable. It is a further sign of van der Lubbe's desperate desire for fame (that would be pathetic if it did not end with the executioner's axe) but hardly a sign of athletic ability.

Did the Nazis do it?

The Nazis clearly gained and for that reason were the prime suspects from the first. However given Germany was immediately plunged into a state of total dictatorship it was initially difficult to gather hard evidence. There is circumstantial evidence that points to the Nazis. First van der Lubbe was, in the period, immediately before the fire in the clutches of a couple of a couple of SA men. Karl Ernst head of the SA in Berlin when asked by a fellow Dutch rightist whether his Storm Troopers were responsible for the fire answered "If I said Yes, I'd be a bloody fool, if I said no I'd be a bloody liar."

The SA clearly had access to incendiary materials as they made a habit of setting fire to election displays of rival political groups.

Did the German State do it?

The Nazis were in power, they directly controlled the police in Berlin. Could they have used the state itself? But there is absolutely no evidence for this and in any case the SA were to hand to do the job. The evidence suggests the fire was the work of the Nazi party but not the state.

So what?

The reason I've taken the trouble to post this summery is that there is an argument used by some militia activists who suggest that the Oklahoma bombing was work of the FBI so that the militia's could be blamed. They use the Reichstag Fire as an analogy in support but if the analogy holds true it points to a rather different conclusion. The closest American equivalent to the SA is not the American state but the militia's. The real nightmare scenario is a right wing president using militias as the muscle in imposing a right of centre dictatorship perhaps with a democratic facade based on an electorate limited to "patriotic Americans".

It certainly possible that the FBI may well in the future falsify evidence to ensure the conviction of militia activists and indeed may have already have done so. However the idea that the FBI might successfully bring off an atrocity like the Oklahoma bombing and successfully cover their tracks in the context of a free press is simply not credible.

This account rest heavily on The Hundred Days to Hitler by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Frankel