BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Pretext for Hitler's dictatorship: the Reichstag fire
, August 16, 2014
BURNING THE REICHSTAG:
An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery
by Benjamin Carter Hett
(New York: Oxford University Press)
Hardcover: 424 pages
Reviewed by Mark Rowley
Germany’s parliament, the Reichstag in Berlin, was set on fire on the night of February 27, 1933, and, triggered by this, Germany rapidly went down the path of totalitarianism in the days and weeks that followed.
Almost exactly 20 years later, on the night of February 28, 1953, in a dacha just outside Moscow, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin went to bed and some hours later suffered what was officially announced as a major stroke. He died without fully recovering consciousness several days after. As a consequence, it might be argued that right there communist totalitarianism peaked and then slowly started its decline.
In both cases the key questions have been asked, but without any fully satisfactory answers being provided. Who destroyed the Reichstag debating chamber and how? And who, if anyone, killed Stalin and, if so how? Indeed, conclusive evidence may never surface.
However, in his recent study, Burning the Reichstag, trial lawyer-turned-historian Benjamin Carter Hett comes the closest yet to providing answers to the earlier of these mysteries. In achieving this Hett continues his study of the law and history of early 20th-century Germany with his third book, a fascinating and well-argued investigation of the events surrounding the Reichstag fire, including the use of newly available material.
He tackles head-on the current orthodox conclusions of such eminent historians of the period as Richard J. Evans and Ian Kershaw that the sole culprit was Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutchman with previous communist connections.
Two of the greatest masters of propaganda of
the 20th century, the communist agitprop supremo
Willi Muenzenberg (left) and Hitler’s Minister for
Propaganda Dr Joseph Goebbels
Hett first sketches the political setting — the elections of 1932 and January 1933, which had given Hitler’s National Socialists little confidence they could gain power outright, and the looming election only five days hence on March 5.
The fire itself is examined in forensic detail, with particular attention paid to van der Lubbe’s movements during the short time he was in the building prior to his arrest there, and to the very basic fire-lighting materials he had in his possession. Also discussed in some detail is the nature of likely accelerants required within the available time frame for the fire in the large central plenary chamber to progress so rapidly, given the relatively low inflammability of its fixtures and furnishings.
Police and fire department investigations, witness testimonies and the reactions of Göring, Goebbels and Hitler are evaluated. Running through it all are the actions of the security police, the Gestapo and the SA, better known as the infamous Brownshirts or Stormtroopers. Hett notes that the SA had previous experience in using self-igniting phosphorus compounds.
The Nazis were eager to destroy the German Communist Party, especially given the ongoing threat of communist-initiated uprisings and disruptions. When the Nazi leaders gathered that evening, watching as the fire was being fought, they immediately grasped the opportunity it presented to both crush the Communist Party and to pressure the ageing President Hindenburg into signing into law what became known as the Reichstag Fire Decree.
The decree contained extremely oppressive measures that were to stay in force until the end of World War II. Civil liberties and press freedom, already under dire pressure, were summarily curtailed. Within a short time all dissent was silenced, and the unions and opposition parties were effectively destroyed.
Within 24 hours of the fire, over 5,000 communists and others were arrested, mostly from previously prepared party membership and address lists. By the end of March, many tens of thousands were in prison and in the regime’s first concentration camps. This was followed on March 23 by the passing of the Enabling Act, giving Hitler dictatorial power.
Later in 1933, van der Lubbe, aged 24, was sent to trial in Leipzig, along with four other communists (who were acquitted through lack of evidence by a judiciary still relatively untainted at that stage). Van der Lubbe alone was convicted and sentenced on December 23, and speedily executed by guillotine on January 10, 1934.
Hett raises relevant questions over why van der Lubbe’s body was refused repatriation and why he was rapidly buried under high security in a secret location.
While Hitler and the Nazis were thus able by March to consolidate and extend their power directly as a result of the fire, when it came to the trial of the alleged arsonists they were hopelessly beaten in the international propaganda war by a wily and highly skilled publicist, Willi Münzenberg, and his talented team in Paris working for the Soviet Comintern. In short order they published two widely circulated Brown Books, one on the fire and associated Nazi terror; the other on the amazing Leipzig trial.
Amazing, that is, since what was meant to be a showpiece for National Socialism and the graveyard of international communism turned into its opposite — the humiliation of Goebbels, and especially of Göring, chiefly at the hands of one of the accused, the verbally brilliant Bulgarian communist, Georgi Dimitrov. A total lack of evidence of any wider communist complicity, though loudly trumpeted by Göring as being overwhelming, even as the fire was being fought, completed the rout.
As well, Münzenberg organised a parallel trial in London, truly a mocking spectacle, which received wide publicity. The net effect of all this was that the world believed for the next several decades that van der Lubbe was at best a dupe for the Nazis, who had themselves secretly lit the fire and blamed the communists in a classic false-flag operation.
As Hannah Arendt put it in relation to the Nazi involvement: “...the day after the fire, all of Berlin knew what had actually happened. A month later, all of Germany knew, and a year later the whole world knew.”
The fire assumed new relevance at war’s end with the Nuremberg Trials and the beginning of the process of “denazification”, the process of removing all traces of Nazi ideology from Germany and Austria and trying to ensure that former Nazi officials did not hold official positions.
Those Gestapo and SA members who had been involved in matters surrounding the fire were at pains to portray themselves in the best possible light and, despite evidence and testimony at the time which appeared to incriminate them, they held out in various proceedings that van der Lubbe had acted alone.
In this they were much assisted in the late 1950s and early 1960s by an historian, Fritz Tobias, who held an influential post in the West German government. Tobias, in a series of newspaper articles and then a book on the fire, presented evidence that he maintained showed van der Lubbe to have been the sole arsonist, even though his previous police record showed the Dutchman to have been a trice-failed inept starter of fires.
Much of the latter part of Hett’s book is concerned with the fire’s historiography — that is, the history of its written history. In particular, Hett attacks the work of Tobias, the latter still being the chief proponent of the accepted single-arsonist theory. While Hett discusses other works implicating the Nazis, he is quick to note their errors and limitations and places no reliance whatever on the often outlandish claims of Nazi complicity contained in the two Brown Books.
Perhaps surprisingly for a former lawyer, Hett does not use the terminology commonly associated with courtroom standards of proof. But from the arguments and evidence presented throughout the book, the careful reader may conclude Hett has proved beyond reasonable doubt that van der Lubbe was not the sole arsonist.
As to Nazi involvement, however, Hett achieves only the lesser standard of a balance of probabilities. It seems likely that one Heini “Pistol” Gewehr and a small team of the SA were responsible, quite possibly without van der Lubbe’s awareness that they were also in the building.
On whether Goebbels or Göring planned or even knew of the fire in advance Hett is a little less convincing, and he presents no evidence that Hitler himself was involved.
It is conceivable that this was a rogue operation that the Nazi hierarchy latched onto immediately as a stroke of massive good fortune.
Either way, the Nazis’ good fortune was soon to be the world’s massive misfortune.
Mark Rowley is a retired psychologist from Auckland, New Zealand.