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The Reichstag Fire

The Reichstag Fire

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05/03/2013

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The Reichstag Fire
by Fritz Tobias
With an Introduction by A. J. P. TAYLOR
FIRST AMERICAN EDITION 1964English translation 1963 by Martin Secker & Warburg LimitedFirst published in Germany under the title
 Der Reichstagsbrand 
, by G. Grotesche Verlagsbuchhandlung
 
The Reichstag Fire1
Contents
Introduction by A. J. P. Taylor......................................
1
 Author’s Preface to the English Edition.........................
4
 I. THE CRIMINAL CASE1. Case of Arson...................................................
5
 2. The Arsonist.....................................................
9
 3. The Police Investigation.................................
20
 4. Wallot’s Building...........................................
25
 II. THE POLITICAL CASE5. Brown
versus
Red..........................................
28
 6. Counter-Attack...............................................
35
 7. The Oberfohren Memorandum.......................
37
 8. The London Counter-trial...............................
42
 9. Munzenberg’s Striking Success......................
48
 III. THE TRIAL10. The Preliminary Examination.........................
66
 11. The German Court and its Shadow.................
77
 12. The Experts....................................................
96
 13. The Verdict..................................................
102
 APPENDIX A: ‘The Reichstag Fire-Who was Guilty?’.........
110
 APPENDIX B: The Reichstag Fire – Nazis Guilty?’..............
111
 APPENDIX C: The Oberfohren Memorandum......................
112
 APPENDIX D: The Ernst Confession....................................
120
 Sources Consulted.................................................................
123
 
Illustrations
1. The Burning Reichstag........................................................
8
 2. The Nazi Leaders at the scene of the fire...........................
30
 3. The Burnt-out Sessions Chamber......................................
97
 4. Marius van der Lubbe before the fire.................................
13
 5. Dimitrov, Popov and Tanev...............................................
71
 6. Van der Lubbe giving evidence.........................................
69
 7. Göring giving evidence.....................................................
51
 7. Van der Lubbe and Torgler in court...................................70
Diagrams
1. Session Chamber at 9.21 p.m. according to Lateit and Losigkeit2. Session Chamber at 9.23 p.m. according to Scranowitz........
7
 3. Van der Lubbe’s trail through the Reichstag (main floor)...
10
 4. Ground plan and section of subterranean passage joiningboiler house to Reichstag...................................................
26
 
The author gratefully acknowledges the help of: the Wiener Library, London; the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam;the Federal Archives, Koblenz; the Federal Information Office, Bonn; the State Office for Political Education, Hannover; Chief PoliceInspector J. C. Hofstede, Leyden; Herr Ernst Torgler, Hannover; Herr Gustav Schmidt-Kuester, Hannover; Herr Karl-Heinz Dobbert,Berlin; and many others.The extracts quoted from
The Invisible Writing
are reprinted by kind permission of Mr. Arthur Koestler and The Macmillan Co.The extracts quoted from
The God That Failed 
(edited by Richard Crossman) are reprinted by kind permission of Mr. Arthur Koestlerand Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
Introduction by A. J. P. Taylor
The fire in the Debating Chamber of the Reichstag on 27 February 1933 has a place in all the history books. Historians, who find somuch to disagree about, are for once in agreement, or were until the present book was published. National Socialists – Nazis for short –started the fire, we believed, in order to cause an anti-Communist panic in Germany and so to influence the general election, due on 5March. The trick succeeded. The German electors took alarm. The Nazis got their majority, and Hitler was able to establish hisdictatorship. The Reichstag fire not only explained the initial Nazi success. It also set the pattern for explanations of all Hitler’s lateracts. We saw at every stage – over rearmament, over Austria, over Czechoslovakia, over Poland – the same deliberate andconspiratorial cunning which had been first shown on 27 February 1933. Historians, writing about Nazi Germany, did not look closelyat the events of that night. They took the central fact for granted: Nazis set fire to the Reichstag; and there was an end of it. Mosthistorians were less sure how the Nazis did it. They used some equivocal phrase: ‘we do not know exactly what happened’; ‘the detailsare still to be revealed’ – something of that sort. Much evidence was in fact available: police reports, fire inspectors’ reports, largeexcerpts from the proceedings of the High Court at Leipzig, kept by Dr Sack, Torgler’s counsel. Herr Tobias was the first to look atthis evidence with an impartial eye. He took nothing for granted. He was not concerned to indict the Nazis, or for that matter to acquitthem. He was that rare thing, a researcher for truth, out to find what happened.His book sticks closely to the events of 27 February and to the legal or sham-legal proceedings which followed. Some knowledgeof the political background may be useful. The republican constitution, created at Weimar in 1919, gave Germany an electoral systemof proportional representation. No single party ever obtained an absolute majority in the Reichstag. A series of coalitions governedGermany between 1919 and 1930. Coalition broke down under the impact of the world depression. The Social Democrats refused tocarry through deflation; their former associates insisted on it. Brüning, a member of the Centre (Roman Catholic) Party, becameChancellor and imposed deflation by emergency decrees, without possessing a majority in the Reichstag. Discontent mounted. Nazisand Communists fought in the streets. In May 1932 Brüning proposed to dissolve the private armies of these two parties by emergency
 
The Reichstag Fire2
decree. The elderly Field-Marshal Hindenburg, President since 1925, refused. He feared that conflict with the private armies wouldbring the real army into politics; and this he was determined to avoid. Brüning was dismissed. Papen, another member of the Centre,became Chancellor. He, too, relied on emergency decrees. He dissolved the Reichstag in the hope of winning wider support. His hopewas not fulfilled. The Nazis won 37.3 per cent of the votes cast on 31 July – their highest vote in a free election – and 230 seats in theReichstag. Papen tried to tempt Hitler with an offer of subordinate office. Hitler refused. Papen dissolved the Reichstag again. Thistime the Nazis did not do so well. On 6 November they received only 33 per cent of the vote and 196 seats. Once more Hitler wasoffered office. Once more he refused. Papen now proposed to prorogue the Reichstag and to govern solely by Presidential decree. Thearmy leaders declared that they would be unable to maintain order. Papen resigned. Schleicher, Hindenburg’s military adviser, took hisplace.Schleicher tried to strengthen his government by negotiating with trade union officials and with a few Nazis who had lost faith inHitler. The negotiations came to nothing. On 28 January 1933 he confessed to Hindenburg that he, too, would have to rule byemergency decree. Meanwhile Papen, still intimate with Hindenburg though out of office, had been negotiating more successfully withHitler. Hitler agreed to join a coalition government of National Socialists and Nationalists. On 30 January he became Chancellor. Thiswas not a seizure of power. Hitler was intrigued into power by respectable politicians of the old order – principally by Papen and alsoby more obscure advisers round Hindenburg. Papen had, he thought, taken Hitler prisoner. There were only three Nazis in a cabinet of eleven; the key posts of foreign minister and minister of defence were in the hands of non-political experts, loyal to Hindenburg; andHitler was not to visit Hindenburg except in the company of Papen, the Vice-Chancellor. Nazis and Nationalists together did not havea majority. Hitler urged that yet another general election would give them a majority, and thus relieve Hindenburg from theembarrassment of issuing emergency decrees any longer. The constitutional system would be restored. This, after all, had been theobject of making Hitler Chancellor.Once more the Reichstag was dissolved. The Nazis now reaped the advantage of being in the government. Göring, Hitler’s chief assistant, became head of the Prussian police; and the police naturally hesitated to act firmly against the Nazi ruffians in their brownshirts. Violence became one-sided. Communist and Social Democrat meetings were broken up. The Nazis made much of theCommunist danger as an election cry. They alleged that the Communists were planning an armed rising. On 23 February the police, onGöring’s orders, raided Communist headquarters in order to discover evidence of this plan. They found none. On 27 February theReichstag went up in flames. Here, it seemed, was the decisive evidence against the Communists, provided perhaps by Heaven. Hitlerannounced the existence of a revolutionary conspiracy. Emergency decrees were passed, authorizing the arrest of dangerous politicians.Communists and others were sent to labour camps. As a matter of fact, the fire had singularly little effect on the general election of 5 March. The Social Democrats and Centre held their previous vote practically intact. The Communists had 70 deputies instead of 100.The National Socialist vote increased to 43.9 per cent. Even with the Nationalists, who also increased their vote a little, Hitler had onlya bare majority in the Reichstag.This was not enough for him. Hitler wished to carry an Enabling Law which would empower him to govern by decrees and thusmake him a dictator by constitutional process. This Law needed a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. The Communists wereprevented from attending. The Social Democrats attended, and were solid against the Enabling Law. Decision rested with the 102deputies of the Centre. They were lured by promises of security for Roman Catholic schools, and voted for the Law. Hitler obtainedhis two-thirds majority. He soon pushed aside the restrictions which Papen had tried to place upon him. He dislodged, or discredited,the Nationalist ministers; banned all parties in Germany except the National Socialist; and gradually engrossed all power in his ownhands. The consequences for Germany and the world are known to us all.On a cool retrospect, the burning of the Reichstag occupies a comparatively small place in the story of Hitler’s rise to absolutepower. He was Chancellor before the fire occurred; it did not much affect the electors; and they did not give him the crushing majoritywhich he needed. The passing of the Enabling Law, not the general election, was the moment of decision. But these were not cool days.A democratic system was being destroyed in the full glare of publicity. Berlin was thronged with newspaper correspondents fromforeign countries, eager for stories. With nerves on edge, everyone expected conspiracies by everyone else. The fire at the Reichstagsupplied the most dramatic story of a dramatic time. It was naturally built up beyond its merits. For instance, we talk to this day asthough the entire Reichstag, a great complex of rooms and building, was destroyed. In fact, only the Debating Chamber was burnt out;and the burning of a Chamber, with wooden panels, curtains dry with age, and a glass dome to provide a natural draught, was notsurprising. Many other similar halls have burnt in an equally short space of time, from the old House of Commons in 1834 to theVienna Stock Exchange a few years ago. A prosaic explanation of this kind did not suit the spirit of the time. People wanted drama;and there had to be drama.There was, on the surface, no great mystery about the burning of the Reichstag. An incendiary was discovered: van der Lubbe, ayoung Dutchman. He gave a coherent account of his activities. This account made sense both to the police officers who examined himand to the fire chiefs who handled the fire. It did not suit either the Nazis or their opponents that van der Lubbe should have started thefire alone. Hitler declared, from the first moment, that the Communists had set fire to the Reichstag. They, knowing that they had not,returned the compliment and condemned the fire as a Nazi trick. Thus both sides, far from wanting to find the truth about the fire, setout on a search for van der Lubbe’s accomplices. The German authorities arrested Torgler, leader of the Communists in the Reichstag,and three Bulgarian Communists. One of them, Dimitrov, was chief European representative of the Communist International, thoughthe Germans did not know this. The four men were accused, along with van der Lubbe, before the High Court at Leipzig. Theprosecution was not interested in establishing the guilt of van der Lubbe. This was both self-evident and unimportant. The prosecutionwas after the four Communists. It was essential to demonstrate that van der Lubbe could not have acted alone. Most of the evidencewas directed to this point. It convinced the Court, and has continued to convince most of those who examined the case later. Van der

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