The Reichstag Fire – 1933

Reichstag building in flames
German Parliament – The Reichstag building in flames, 1933

What Happened?

On Monday 27 February 1933, four weeks after dictator Adolf Hitler was inaugurated as Chancellor of Germany, there was an attempt on the Reichstag German parliament known as the Reichstag Fire (Reichstagsbrand, in German).

The likely perpetrator was Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch “council communist”, but Hitler blamed the fire on Communist provocateurs. He used this as an excuse to allege that Communists were conspiring against German Authority. He convinced President Paul von Hindenburg to ratify the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suppressed civil freedoms and ordered a “brutal fight” with the Communists. As a result, the fire played a crucial role in the formation of Nazi Germany.

The phrase “Reichstag Fire” has become a byword for “inside jobs”: disastrous catastrophes secretly orchestrated by totalitarian regimes as a justification for retaliating against their adversaries. But the unsettling reality is that while Hitler used the fire to advance his heinous ascent to power, we’ll never know if he was the one who started the fire that transformed the country’s destiny.

This footage shows the Reichstag (German parliament) building on the day after it was set on fire. While the origins of the fire on February 27 are still unclear, Hitler blamed Communists for the incident. The Reichstag Fire Decree of February 28, 1933, suspended constitutional guarantees. Communist and Socialist deputies were expelled from the parliament. Shortly after the decree was issued, the Nazis established concentration camps for the internment of political opponents.
British Movietone News Ltd. – Holocaust Encyclopedia


On Hitler’s instruction, President Hindenburg used Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to bring the incident Order into legislation the day following the fire. Most civil freedoms in Germany were suppressed by the Reichstag Fire Resolution, especially habeas corpus, independence of opinion, press freedom, the principle of free organization and people gathering, and postal and telephone confidentiality.

A Berlin firehouse got an alert call shortly after the incident was initially reported. The police scoured the premises and discovered Van der Lubbe, who’d been detained.

The accused in the Leipzig Trial were Bulgarians Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev, Blagoy Popov, and Dutch Van Der Lubbe. All four communists were found not guilty. The cause of the Reichstag fire is still controversial and investigated.

Fire brigade arrives at the Reichstag (German parliament) building.
Fire brigade arrives at the Reichstag (German parliament) building.

The Nazis blamed the Comintern. However, depending on archive data, some scholars agree that the fire was organized and directed by the Nazis as a covert operation

The things worked in their weakened state until 1961-64, when it was temporarily rebuilt and reconstructed from 1995-99. In 2008, Germany honoured Van der Lubbe underneath a statute passed in 1998 to overturn unfair Nazi-era convictions.

Political Role

The Nazis used the directive to outlaw writings that were not “supportive” of the Nazi agenda. Even though Marinus van der Lubbe was alleged to have operated alone in the Reichstag fire, Hitler stated that it was the commencement of a more significant communist attempt to take control of Germany after obtaining his extraordinary powers.

This false “news” was then disseminated in Nazi Party newspapers. Hundreds of communists (primarily members of the Communist Party) were arrested days after the fire under suspicions that the Party was planning a military coup. The Nazis said during the electoral campaign that the nation was on the edge of a revolution and that the only solution to eliminate the threat was to keep the Nazis in office. The political agenda was straightforward: expand the number of Nazi votes.

Firemen in the Reichstag (German parliament) building after it was damaged by arson
Firemen in the Reichstag (German parliament) building after it was damaged by arson

During the Reichstag fire, Hitler told Rudolph Diels about communists: “These apes have no idea how the people supporting us feel. They don’t hear the public applauding from their trackpad, from which they now wish to emerge.” With communist election engagement curtailed (communists had earlier made up 17% of the voting body), the Nazis were able to expand their vote bank from 33% to 44% in the Reichstag polls on March 5, 1933.

 The Nazis won the election. They hoped that this would make achieving their next objective, the adoption of the Enabling Legislation (officially titled Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich) which provided Hitler with the power to run by order and needed a two-thirds mandate, more complex.

SS Troops enter the Kroll Opera House
SS Troops enter the Kroll Opera House – On the day of the vote on the so-called Enabling Act, the Nazi leadership sent SS troops into the makeshift Reichstag building, formerly the Kroll Opera, to intimidate other political parties. Berlin, Germany, March 23, 1933. – Source: Holocaust Encyclopedia

However, numerous crucial circumstances favoured the Nazis, including the Communist Party’s prolonged persecution and the Nazis’ capacity to leverage security problems. Furthermore, due to Nazi SA (Sturmabteilung) detention and pressure, certain Social Democratic Party members were prohibited from assuming their places in the Reichstag.

Hitler thanks members of the SA and SS. -In this German newsreel footage, Hitler addresses members of the SA and the SS in the Sportpalast, a sports arena in Berlin, Germany. He thanked them for their support and sacrifice during the Nazi struggle for power.
Bundesarchiv Filmarchiv

The right-wing German Party, the Central Party, and other splintered proletariat-class groups backed the Executive Order, which passed handily on March 23, 1933. On March 24, the act came into place, declaring Hitler the ruler of Germany.

Enabling Act - Hitler's Reichstag speech promoting the bill was delivered at the Kroll Opera House, following the Reichstag fire.
Enabling Act – Hitler’s Reichstag speech promoting the bill was delivered at the Kroll Opera House, following the Reichstag fire. The Enabling Act allowed the Reich government to issue laws without the consent of Germany’s parliament, laying the foundation for the complete Nazification of German society. The full name of the law was the “Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich.”

The Leipzig Trial

Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov, and Vasil Tanev were convicted of referring to the Reichstag in July 1933. The Trial happened from September 21 to December 23, 1933, and was supervised by magistrates from the Court, the Reichsgericht. This was the supreme law in Germany. Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bünger of the Fourth Prosecution of the Supreme Court presided over the hearing.

The defendants were prosecuted for arson and trying to overthrow a government.

The Leipzig Trial

The Leipzig Trial received much attention and was even aired on the radio. The communists were expected to be found guilty on all counts by the Court. The investigation started on September 21, with Van der Lubbe giving his testimony. The evidence was tough to understand since he opened up about losing his vision in one eye and roaming throughout Europe as a vagrant, as well as his participation in the Dutch Communist Party, which he left in 1931. However, he still believed himself a member of that Party. On the third day of the prosecution, Georgi Dimitrov presented his evidence.

He waived his privilege to a judicial lawyer and successfully represented himself. “Herr President, if you were a guy as blameless as myself and had spent seven months in jail, five of them in shackles, you would appreciate if one feels a kind of stretched,” Dimitrov said in response to Judge Bünger’s warning. During his plea, Dimitrov alleged that the fire’s organizers were top Nazi members of the Party, and he regularly physically battled with Göring during the Trial. On November 4, 1933, the Trial reached a climax when Göring testified.

As a result of the judgment of this case, Hitler decided to end the treasonous proceedings from ordinary courts. He decreed that treason and a slew of other crimes would now be prosecuted exclusively by a newly constituted People’s Court. The People’s Court afterwards became known for the number of death penalties it issued, particularly those bestowed in the aftermath of the 1944 attempted assassination of the Nazi regime.

Execution of Marinus van der Lubbe

Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. On January 10, 1934, three days before his 25th birthday, he was decapitated by guillotine (the traditional means of killing in Saxony at the time).

Marinus van der Lubbe 1933
Marinus van der Lubbe 1933

The Nazis said Van der Lubbe was involved in a communist plot to destroy the Reichstag and take control of the country, while the communists argued that he was involved in a Nazi plot to blame the crime on them. For his part, Van der Lubbe claimed that he was acting alone in defiance of the German middle class’s plight.

Van der Lubbe’s penalty was posthumously altered to eight years in jail by a tribunal in West Berlin in 1967, overturning the 1933 conviction.

A different court reversed the judgment in 1980, but it was restored. A West German court overturned Van der Lubbe’s 1933 conviction in 1981 and found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

This ruling was once again overturned in 2008. He was pardoned for the crimes under a 1998 statute that said everyone sentenced in Nazi Germany was legally not liable. The law allowed persons convicted of crimes committed during the Nazi era to be pardoned, built on the idea that Nazi Germany’s regulations “acted against the core notions of justice”.

Memorial for Marinus van der Lubbel at the Südfriedhof in Leipzig – the stones placed are a Jewish symbol called matzevot, to show respect
Memorial for Marinus van der Lubbel at the Südfriedhof in Leipzig – the stones placed are a Jewish symbol called matzevot, to show respect

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