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Book Review

The Reichstag Fire, 68 years on

Alexander Bahar, Wilfried Kugel:
Der Reichstagbrand - Wie Geschichte gemacht wird
(The Reichstag Fire - How History is Created), edition q, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-86124-523-2,
864 pages, price: 68.00 DM

A guest review by Wilhelm Klein
5 July 2001

On February 27, 1933—more than 68 years ago—the Berlin Reichstag, the seat of Germany’s parliament, was set on fire. Shortly after the fire began, the Dutch left-wing radical Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested at the scene of the crime, apparently as the sole culprit.

Even before his identity was established, the Nazi leaders accused the German Communist Party (KPD) of having committed arson. According to Nazi propaganda, the Reichstag fire was intended as a signal for a communist uprising that had long been planned—a claim for which there was not a shred of evidence. In actual fact, the KPD leadership was neither willing nor able to organize such an uprising, so the Reichstag fire could not have been a signal for it.

Who were the arsonists?

To this very day, there is hardly any event in German history that has been debated as heatedly as the issue of who really set the Reichstag on fire.

In years of meticulous research, the two authors of the book, historian Alexander Bahar and physicist and psychologist Wilfried Kugel, carried out the first comprehensive evaluation of the 50,000 pages of original court, state attorney office and secret police (Gestapo) files that had been locked away in Moscow and East Berlin until 1990. The result is a remarkable and explosive, more than 800-page document that for the first time provides almost complete circumstantial evidence that the Nazis prepared and set the Reichstag fire themselves.

The authors have thus succeeded in disproving a hypothesis that even today is still fairly widespread: that the Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe was the sole perpetrator. They “base their evidence largely on original documents that are stored in public archives, but have not been evaluated up to now... The book contradicts in many ways all of the research reports that have been published so far on the Reichstag fire, based on what the authors say is the first thorough evaluation of all presently available relevant sources... 

As early as the summer of 1933, the Brown Book on the Reichstag Fire and Hitler’s Terror was published in Switzerland under the editorship of Willi Münzenberg. In this book, German emigrés attempted to provide proof that the Nazis had committed the crime in a secret operation run by Nazi leader Hermann Göring. And even before the Reichstag Fire Trial in Leipzig, the “Legal Commission of the International Investigation Committee” came to the conclusion that the Nazis had set the fire themselves. Up to 1949, this was the prevailing opinion of all serious contemporaries outside of Germany. “Everyone abroad was and remains convinced that the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag.” 

In Germany, however, the legend of Marinus van der Lubbe as the sole perpetrator was created after 1945 by the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, and his former staff. Diels, who was in charge of the sweeping arrests carried out on the night of the fire, had every reason to exonerate the Nazi rulers after World War II, since he was deeply involved in the Reichstag fire himself. As the authors explain:

“six hours before the Reichstag fire, Rudolf Diels, head of the ... Political Police since February 23, 1933 and subsequently head of the Secret State Police Office (Gestapo), wrote the following police radio telegram which was sent to all police stations in Prussia at about 6:00 p.m.: ‘Communists reportedly plan to carry out systematic raids on police squads and members of nationalist associations with the aim of disarming them.’ ... ‘Suitable countermeasures are to be taken immediately, and where necessary communist functionaries placed under protective custody.’”

“The arrests carried out the next night had thus already been initiated by Rudolf Diels, the Chief of the Political Police, on the afternoon of February 27.”

The authors prove that it would have been impossible for Marinus van der Lubbe to set on fire a building as large as the Reichstag on his own, by reconstructing in minute detail the course of the fire on the basis of countless testimony documents and investigation and court files (particularly in Chapters 2 and 4).

Their conclusion is that “the ‘culprit’ van der Lubbe had even less time to carry out his alleged act of arson than has hitherto been assumed, namely only 12 to 13 minutes... The view often expressed in historical literature that the Reichstag arson had taken Göring, Goebbels and Hitler ‘by surprise’ must now presumably be regarded once and for all as a myth.” 

In Chapters 5 to 7, the authors document the proceedings at the so-called Reichstag Fire Trial, which began on September 21, 1933 in Leipzig, and then present the circumstantial evidence for the guilt of the Nazis. The exact evaluation of all of the fire expert reports leads to one conclusion: “ All of the fire experts agreed that the fire in the Reichstag assembly hall had to have been set by several culprits. Van der Lubbe’s self-incrimination was thus proved to be a lie.” 

In the trial before the Leipzig Reichsgericht court, which the Nazis had originally planned as a show trial, the accused were “van der Lubbe and comrades.” Despite coerced witnesses (including concentration camp prisoners), planted and forged “evidence,” and torture and terror against the accused, the Nazis never succeeded in proving the alleged guilt of the communists. The Reichsgericht passed its verdict on December 23, 1933: “The accused Torgler, Dimitrov, Popov and Tanev are acquitted.” Marinus van der Lubbe, the only “presentable” culprit, was sentenced to death and executed on January 10, 1934, despite the existing expert opinions and testimony which conclusively ruled out the Dutchman as the sole perpetrator.

Finally, the authors expose the Nazis as the only feasible culprits. Among the documentary evidence the authors base this verdict on is the testimony of SA member Adolf Rall (who was later murdered by the SA and the Gestapo). The emigré newspaper Pariser Tageblatt reported on December 24, 1933: “he (Rall) stated he was a member of the SA’s “Sturm 17” unit. Before the Reichstag fire broke out, he had been in the subterranean passageway that connects the Reichstag assembly building to the building in which the government apartment of the Reich President [Hermann Göring] is located. Rall said that he had personally witnessed various members of his SA unit bringing the explosive liquids into the building.” 

Hans Bernd Gisevius, who had worked as a junior lawyer for the political police from August to December 1933, made the following testimony at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in 1946: “It was Goebbels who first came up with the idea of setting fire to the Reichstag. Goebbels discussed this with the leader of the Berlin SA brigade, Karl Ernst, and made detailed suggestions on how to go about carrying out the arson. A certain tincture known to every pyrotechnician was selected. You spray it onto an object and then it ignites after a certain time, after hours or minutes. In order to get into the Reichstag building, they needed the passageway that leads from the palace of the Reichstag President to the Reichstag. A unit of ten reliable SA men was put together, and now Göring was informed of all the details of the plan, so that he coincidentally was not out holding an election speech on the night of the fire, but was still at his desk in the Ministry of the Interior at such a late hour... The intention right from the start was to put the blame for this crime on the Communists, and those ten SA men who were to carry out the crime were instructed accordingly.” 

Based on this testimony and a wealth of other circumstantial evidence, the course of this act of arson can be reconstructed as follows:

“On February 27, 1933, at about 8:00 p.m. a commando group of at least 3, and at most 10 SA men led by Hans Georg Gewehr entered the basement of the palace of the Reichstag President. The group took the incendiary substances deposited there, and used the subterranean passageway to go from the Reichstag President’s palace to the Reichstag building, where they prepared the assembly hall in particular with a self-igniting liquid they probably mixed in the hall. After a certain latency period, the liquid set off the fire in the assembly hall. The group made their getaway through the subterranean passageway and the basement of the Reichstag President’s palace (and possibly also through the adjacent basement leading to the machinery and government employees’ building) to the public street ‘Reichstagsufer.’ Göring entered the burning Reichstag building at 9:21 p.m. at the latest, presumably in order to provide a cover for the commando group’s retreat.

“Van der Lubbe was brought to the Reichstag by the SA at exactly 9:00 p.m. and let into the building by them. The sound of breaking glass which was noticed by witnesses and which was allegedly due to van der Lubbe breaking window panes to get into the building was probably only intended to attract the attention of the public. The Dutchman was sacrificed as the only available witness.” 

Almost all of the SA men involved in the deed (with the exception of Hans Georg Gewehr) and many accessories to the crime were later murdered by the Nazis, above during the so-called “Röhm putsch” on June 30, 1934.

Responsibility for the Reichstag Fire was a constant source of debate between German historians after the Second World War. In the early 1960’s, the attempt was made to establish the hypothesis of van der Lubbe as the sole culprit—in particular by Rudolf Augstein’s magazine Der Spiegel and the “amateur historian” and intelligence officer Fritz Tobias. To this very day, some prominent German historians base themselves on this hypothesis and still attempt to deny the guilt of the Nazis. With their new book Der Reichstagbrand, Alexander Bahar and Wilfried Kugel have provided authoritative evidence to finally dispel the longstanding controversy.