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Hitler's Power Grab

DW staff (sms)February 27, 2008

Fire broke out in the German parliament on the night of Feb. 27, 1933. It accelerated Adolf Hitler's dictatorial take-over of Germany, but he would have seized power even if the blaze hadn't occurred.

View of the interior of the Reichstag after the fire
The 1933 fire gutted the Reichstag's main assembly roomImage: AP Photo

The fire that tore through the Reichstag's assembly room 75 years ago was blamed on Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe, who was caught and arrested outside the building. The recent arrival from the Netherlands admitted to the act, saying he was a communist and single-handedly wanted to take revenge on capitalism.

His statement was, however, enough for then-Prussian Interior Minister Hermann Goering to call the event an "outrage" and the first act in a planned communist uprising.

Flames engulf the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 27, 1933.
Communists set the Reichstag fire, Goering saidImage: AP

"When [police chief Wolf-Heinrich] Graf von Helldorf heard about the fire, it was as clear to him as it was to all of us that the Communist Party had to be behind it," Goering said. "Of course, I then called him to my office and said that all of them had to be arrested."

Lead by von Helldorf, who headed a section of SA storm-troopers, police arrested numerous Communist Party (KPD) members and left-leaning authors in connection with the Reichstag fire.

Cause of fire still debated

While those immediate effects of the fire are clear, historians continue to disagree whether van der Lubbe acted alone, or if the Communist Party or even Hitler's Nazi Party (NSDAP) set the blaze.

Historian Hans Mommsen, author of "The Reichstag Fire and Its Political Consequences," says neither of the political parties was involved.

"The Reichstag fire was set by the Dutchman van der Lubbe and he was the sole perpetrator," Mommsen said. "The communists did not have anything to do with it and neither did the National Socialists. There are no motives or reasons to doubt he was alone."

Marinus van der Lubbe
Van der Lubbe maintained he did not have any accomplicesImage: picture-alliance / Imagno

Regardless of whether then-Chancellor Hitler and the Nazis laid the fire or took advantage of the situation as it unfolded, as Mommsen says, the event was followed by a state of emergency, established by President Paul von Hindenburg.

The emergency situation gave the government additional powers to censor the media, search homes and outlaw public assemblies, all rights which Hitler would have grabbed sooner or later, Mommsen says.

"The Reichstag fire decrees took care of much of what was already clearly planned in the Enabling Act," he said, referring to the changes in law Hitler used to consolidate power. "In this way, the Reichstag fire accelerated the implementation of the dictatorship. In effect, Hitler came to power faster than he had expected so that the Enabling Act functioned more as 'legalization.'"

After early elections made the Nazi Party the strongest parliamentary party in March 1933, the Enabling Act was passed, giving Hitler power to rule by decree, bypassing the parliament.

Four others acquitted

The trial of van der Lubbe and four other defendants began on Sept. 21, 1933, and ended on Dec. 23 with van der Lubbe convicted of arson and sentenced to death. The others charged, including the KPD's parliamentary leader Ernst Torgler and Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, were acquitted due to insufficient evidence against them.

Hermann Goering stands in the prisoner's dock at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in Germany in Nov. 21, 1945
Goering was sentenced to death at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945Image: AP

The court's decision, which infuriated Hitler, is reported to have been one of the reasons he created the "People's Court" to try cases of treason against the Third Reich and other political offenses outside the established legal system. This extra-legal court became known for issuing death sentences and other severe punishments.

The sentence given to van der Lubbe, who was beheaded on Jan. 10, 1934, was overturned in January 2008, and a memorial dedicated to him is to be inaugurated on Wednesday, Feb. 27.

A private initiative, the memorial consists of two plaques and will be unveiled in his home city of Leiden.

The first plaque contains a large photograph of van der Lubbe and the second a short text, recounting -- in Dutch and German -- the history of what one of the memorial's initiators, historian Cor Smit, told the DPA news agency was "an early act of resistance against the Nazi regime."