Saturday, December 16, 2006


The Communists certainly would have liked to take over Germany, and some held high positions of power already there – among the country’s rank-and-file, party membership was growing as it did everywhere during the Depression, Capitalism’s darkest hour. While the actual nature of the threat posed is still unclear, it was not nearly as immediate as the Nazis wanted people to believe it was. Goebels wanted to crack down on the Communists and remove the Nazis’ main domestic power rival. As he noted in his diary, “we lay down the line for the fight against the Red Terror.” But the time was not yet ripe; “The Bolshevik attempt at Revolution must first burst into flames.” [1]

Then, just 28 days after Hitler was appointed chancellor, on the night of February 27, the Reichstag, the home of the parliamentary government, was gutted by a massive fire, and Germany would never be the same again. The Reichstag building was empty, in recess since December and awaiting reopening for the election. Hitler was dining with Goebbels when Goebbels (soon to be Propaganda minister) got a call – the Reichstag was on fire. Thinking it an exaggeration, he ignored it at first, but then followed up and found out it was for real. President Hindenburg was dining with Vice-Chancellor Franz Von Papen, just around the corner from the Reichstag at the exclusive Herrenklub and could actually see the glow from the fire. All raced to the scene. Goering was already there, shouting “this is a Communist crime against the new government! This is the beginning of the Communist Revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot, where he is found.” [2]
The Reichstag burning and the aftermath inside

At 9:15 PM smoke was seen pouring from the building, and ten minutes later, as the first firemen arrived on the scene, the fire was raging out of control. At 9:30 there was a “tremendous explosion” and the huge central chamber was filled with flames. The fire quickly raced out of control, and left standing only a gutted shell of the building. [3] The attack killed no one, but certainly provided a shocking symbol of destruction and national vulnerability that changed the tone of election week dramatically.

Marinus Van Der Lubbe. Picture and info from Wikipedia.
The act of arson was blamed at the time on a young Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, arrested dazed and shirtless at the scene minutes after the police arrived. (he apparently used his shirt to start the fire) Wikipedia explains that the 23-year old Van Der Lubbe had “a history of taking responsibility for things he had not done” to spare others. He admitted to starting the massive fire by himself, with only his shirt and some gasoline. That one man was able to ignite such a powerful and explosive fire in the headquarters of the national government, under Goering’s nose but without inside help, seems unlikely. Nonetheless, the mentally ill Van Der Lubbe stubbornly insisted he and he alone was responsible. Ultimately the court proved subservient to the Nazis and the man was convicted, beheaded and buried in an unmarked grave.

But while they bought his admission, Nazi officials refused to believe Van Der Lubbe acted alone. This Goering and the others stressed; after all, this was the “beginning of the Communist Revolution,” so clearly he had to have supporters. A local branch of the Comintern (Communist International) was implicated as the conspiracy probe widened, though the Leipzig Supreme Court was able to establish no connection between the Comintern delegates and the actual crime. [4] But such minutiae escaped much of the German public, for whom the nature of the threat was obvious. The solution – the Nazi way – also became obvious to more people than ever as the March 5 election drew near. Either way, Hitler and his disciples decided, this time they would have their coveted majority. Either he would win, or they would go ahead with their coup.

With this contingency plan in mind, the Nazis played fast and loose with the political rhetoric. On March 3, just two days before the election Goering delivered a rousing campaign speech in which he promised the voters “my measures will not be crippled by any judicial thinking… I don’t have to worry about justice; my mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more! …Certainly I shall use the power of the state and the police to the utmost, my dear Communists, so don’t draw any false conclusions; but the struggle to the death, in which my fist will grasp your necks, I shall lead with those down there – the Brownshirts.” [5] While this likely lost him some Communist votes, he probably had the Brownshirt vote locked up after that speech, and when the election came around, the National Socialist Party managed to take 52% of the seats.

[1] Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York. Crest Books. 7th Printing. July 1965. Page 267. [2] Page 268.
[3], [4] Swigart, Soren. “The Reichstag Fire.” The World at War.
[5] Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression Volume IV. Document No. 1856-PS.

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