Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery

  • Benjamin Carter Hett
  • Oxford University Press
  • 393 pp
  • Reviewed by Robert Swan
  • March 11, 2014

A fascinating whodunnit about arson in pre-WWII Nazi Germany that created a dictator and changed the course of history.

Joseph Stalin once remarked that Hitler was a political genius with one fatal flaw: He didn’t know when to stop, as the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 proved. On the other hand, Hitler seemed — at least until that invasion — to have had an unerring sense of political opportunism that enabled him to secure dictatorial power and extend his sway over most of continental Europe. Benjamin Carter Hett, a former trial lawyer and current history professor at Hunter College, considers in this book an instance of Hitler’s canny sense of the politically advantageous: the 1933 burning of the Reichstag (German Parliament).

The standard version of the story, heavily truncated for brevity, goes like this: When named Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Hitler was sandwiched between the powerful but ailing President of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, and a conservative cabinet that effectively acted as a brake on the Nazi Party. Hitler called new elections with two goals in mind: to increase the Nazi party’s representation in the Reichstag and, having done so, to pass an enabling act that would provide emergency powers — effectively making him a dictator.

The problem, of course, is that to be granted emergency powers, one must first face an emergency. On February 27, 1933, just days prior to the new elections, the Reichstag caught fire; a Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was found wandering about the building in a state of confusion. Van der Lubbe swore he committed the arson on his own. Hitler, however, used the fire, ostensibly set by a Communist cabal with van der Lubbe as its stooge, to suppress political opposition on the Left, and facilitate the passing of an enabling act granting Hitler the emergency powers that made him dictator.

The natural question is: Did the Nazis start the fire as a pretext for suppressing the Communists? The reasonable supposition is that the need for an emergency and the occurrence of the fire could not be merely coincidental, given Hitler’s habitual ruthlessness and the immense, obvious, and immediate advantages to his regime accruing from the arson. However, the version of what happened on February 27, 1933, that has been accepted by some of the world’s greatest historians of Nazi Germany exculpates the Nazis from responsibility for the fire. Why?

According to Hett, the person most responsible for promulgating a (supposedly false) version of the burning of the Reichstag was Fritz Tobias, a Nazi sympathizer whose account of the fire became the standard treatment of the subject. After the war, Tobias used his powerful position as the head of West Germany’s “Office for Constitutional Protection” to blackmail those with a different account of the event into retracting their claims or remaining silent altogether. Though Tobias’s motives remain obscure, it appears that he did indeed intimidate those who challenged his version.

Hett argues that to truly appreciate the significance of the Reichstag fire, and the strong likelihood that the Nazis started it in contravention of the Tobias thesis, we must understand the fire in its political and cultural context. He provides a detailed overview of the key events leading to Hitler’s rise to power, capsule biographies of some of the regime’s major and minor members, and an exhaustively-researched, intricately-detailed forensic analysis of the evidence related to the fire’s investigation, from eyewitness testimony to the evaluation of the types of chemicals that would be required to ignite and spread the fire.

Hett lays before the reader a veritable avalanche of evidence that suggests Nazi culpability for the fire. Besides conflicting testimony of Gestapo and police officials who were on the scene at the time of the fire and conducted extensive investigations after the fact, there is forensic evidence proving that van der Lubbe could not have set and spread the fire alone in the time he had to do so. This suggests he must have had accomplices, and given that even the Nazis could not gain a conviction of the other Communists tried along with van der Lubbe, the likelihood of Communist involvement is slim.

It is much more likely that van der Lubbe was enmeshed in Nazi machinations, and drugged at his trial to make him pliant. Hett demonstrates that the SA (storm troopers, Hitler’s brown-shirted fighting squad) had developed an organization that specialized in incendiary activities, which had burned other buildings before the Reichstag fire; Nazi expertise was not lacking.

Additionally, the evidence shows that the SA committed murder to suppress testimony incriminating to the Nazis. Many of the Gestapo and police officers involved in the Reichstag investigation who survived the war repeatedly changed their version of what happened under pressure from those who wanted the Tobias version of events to stick. Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo (about whose love life Hett tells us far too much), indicated that, yes, the Nazis had started the fire, but that Hitler knew nothing about it beforehand. Hans Bern Gisevius, Diels’s nemesis, confirmed his story, and consistently maintained that the SA started the fire and the Gestapo covered up the crime. According to Hett, the available evidence overwhelmingly favors the conclusion that the Nazis were responsible for setting the fire. His conclusion is that it is likely the SA was responsible, but he admits that there is no concrete evidence that Hitler was involved.

Regardless of whether you agree with Hett, if you want a fascinating read that is a classic example of historical detective work, an analysis of the way in which power and vested self-interest skew the writing and interpretation of history and therefore the perception of historical reality, buy this book.

Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program
at an area high school.

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