Who Really Started The Reichstag Fire?

The Reichstag Fire helped set Hitler on the path to total power – but were the Nazis really behind it?

The Reichstag in 1933, after the fire

THE NIGHT EVERYTHING CHANGED

On the evening of 27 February 1933, Adolf Hitler was having dinner at the home of his propaganda maestro, Joseph Goebbels, when the phone rang. It was a friend of the pair, frantically telling them a huge fire had broken out at the Reichstag parliament building. Goebbels dismissed the call as a practical joke. But, soon after, he and Hitler were at the scene, watching the inferno envelop the iconic heart of German power. Also at the scene was that other Nazi bigwig, Hermann Goring, who declared "This is Communist outrage!", setting into place the "official" explanation for who was behind the arson attack.

Mere hours later, the Nazis pushed forward a decree which clamped down on civil liberties throughout the land. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech were abruptly no more, while prominent Communists were rounded up. These emergency measures would lead to Hitler - who had only recently become Chancellor of Germany - assuming absolute power as dictator. As historian Richard J. Evans would later put it, "The Third Reich was founded on a conspiracy theory."

WAS IT A CONSPIRACY?

The man apprehended at the scene was a peculiar drifter named Marinus van der Lubbe, who was put on trial along with a group of prominent Communists. While the others were acquitted due to lack of evidence, van der Lubbe was executed by guillotine, and his role in the fire has been fiercely debated by historians ever since.

There are three possible explanations for the fire. The first is that it was simply the work of Marinus van der Lubbe. Reliable witness statements tell us that Hitler and the other top-ranking Nazis seemed genuinely shocked and panic-stricken when arriving at the burning Reichstag. Plus, van der Lubbe had a track record of arson attacks, and was a social misfit with revolutionary zeal who wanted to take down the German government. On top of that, he vigorously maintained he did it alone, with no help from anyone else.

In a series of famous writings on the subject in the 1960s, author Fritz Tobias also pointed out that, if van der Lubbe was indeed being used as a scapegoat for the fire by the Nazis, they wouldn't have put him on trial. More likely they "would have shot him the moment he had done their dirty work, blaming his death on an outbreak of 'understandable popular indignation'. Van der Lubbe could then have been branded a Communist without the irritations of a public trial."

But what if the Nazis were indeed behind the fire? This the idea that's stuck most firmly in the public consciousness, and was initially publicised in a bestselling volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror. The book, which was put together by Communist rivals of the Nazis, claimed a secret team of Nazi brownshirts entered the Reichstag through a secret tunnel, set fire to the place, and then put the blame on van der Lubbe - much like future conspiracy theorists would claim Lee Harvey Oswald was a mere patsy in the JFK assassination.

Plenty of hearsay and gossip connects the Nazis to the fire - a famous quote attributed to Hermann Goring, which came out at the Nuremberg trials, has Goring proudly boasting during a birthday party "The only one who really knows about the Reichstag building is I, for I set fire to it." Goring himself vehemently denied ever saying it, pointing the finger of blame at the Communists.

And that's the third possibility: that it was indeed a Communist conspiracy. Our revulsion towards the Nazis makes it tempting to think they were behind every odious crime of the era, but it's easy to forget the Communists were locked in a bitter, violent power struggle with the Nazis at the time, and some rogue elements may indeed have decided to torch the Reichstag to cause further chaos. In this version of events, van der Lubbe was a Guy Fawkes-like figure, the "face" of a larger conspiracy.

AN ENDURING ENIGMA

The bottom line is it's impossible to know who really set the Reichstag alight. Claims by some historians are met by vehement counter-claims by others. Did the brownshirts really use a secret tunnel to enter the parliament building, or was the tunnel actually filled with pipes and impossible to penetrate? Could van der Lubbe really have single-handedly caused such devastation to the building, or would have a larger team have to been involved (it's like the single, "magic bullet" theory vs a team of hidden snipers, to use another JFK analogy).

The very phrase "Reichstag Fire" has become a by-word for false flag, "inside jobs": catastrophic events secretly instigated by authoritarian powers as a pretext to crack down on their enemies. But the uncomfortable fact remains that, while Hitler undoubtedly capitalised on the fire to further his horrific rise to supremacy, we'll never know for certain if he was actually behind the fire that changed the course of the world.