Historian says Nazis were to blame for the Reichstag fire

Historians in the News
tags: Nazis, Reichstag

On 27 February 1933, the German parliament – Reichstag – building was severely damaged as a result of arson.

Portrayed by Adolf Hitler’s cabinet as part of a Communist plot to overthrow the state, the fire was exploited to secure President von Hindenburg’s approval for an emergency decree - the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State.

Popularly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree, it suspended freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to assembly, and permitted the regime to arrest and incarcerate political opponents without specific charge.

The fire was blamed on 24-year-old Dutch Communist stonemason, Marinus van der Lubbe, who was arrested at the scene. But while he was initially dismissed abroad as a Nazi tool, post-war historians since the 1960s have largely judged him solely guilty – a lone arsonist exploited by Hitler.

But now, in his new book, Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery, professor of history and former trial lawyer, Benjamin Carter Hett, argues it was the Nazis who set fire to Reichstag in order to seize dictatorial power.

If correct, Hett’s argument sheds new light on the Nazis as having calculated a much clearer route to power than has so far been realised.

Here, in an interview with History Extra, Hett reveals more about his findings, and explains how the burning of the parliament building paved the way for Germany’s Third Reich. 

Q: What was the significance of the fire?

A: This was the moment that Hitler turned himself into a dictator. It was the event through which the Nazis issue the Decree for the Protection of the German People on 4 February 1933 – ‘The Reichstag Fire Decree’ – the fundamental legal basis for the Third Reich.

The question arises – who set the fire? It has been much like the John F Kennedy assassination, with conspiracy theories emerging.

The Nazis clearly benefited from the fire, so it was at first the prevailing view that they were responsible. But in the 1950s and 60s, historian Fritz Tobias came forward with the theory that Marinus van der Lubbe, a 24-year-old Dutch Communist stonemason arrested at the scene of the fire, acted alone.

This then became the accepted view.

But what I’m suggesting is that van der Lubbe was a stooge in someone else’s conspiracy – the Nazis.

Some historians have made their reputation on the theory that van der Lubbe acted alone, so they aren’t happy with me right now!

Q: Why do you believe the Nazis were responsible for the fire?

A: Chemists and engineers have always said that one person acting alone and possessing only matches and fire-lighters couldn’t have set the fire that destroyed the Plenary Chamber in just 15 minutes. They say the arsonist or arsonists had to have petrol or paraffin.

The side that argues van der Lubbe acted alone have never managed to bring in a fire expert of their own to credibly rebut that.

And if he wasn’t acting alone, the Nazis must have been involved – under the conditions of 1933, it is impossible to imagine that van der Lubbe could have had non-Nazi co-conspirators who could have both gained access to the Reichstag and then evaded the police thereafter....

Read entire article at BBC History Mag.

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