Who Set Fire to the Reichstag? (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Who Set Fire to the Reichstag?

Q1: Read the introduction and study sources 2, 3, 5 and 7. Name the group of people that the Nazi government blamed for the Reichstag Fire. What action did the government take against these people?

A1: Rudolf Diels (source 2), the head of the Gestapo, was told by Hermann Göring that the fire was "the beginning of the Communist Revolt" and that every Communist official should be shot.

According to Franz von Papen (source 3) Adolf Hitler told him: "This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice-Chancellor! If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, that we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist."

Seftan Delmer (source 5) was told by Hitler: ""God grant that this is the work of the Communists. You are witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history. This fire is the beginning.... You see this flaming building, If this Communist spirit got hold of Europe for but two months it would be all aflame like this building."

Bernard Partridge (source 7) published a cartoon with Paul von Hindenburg , the president of Germany, saying to Hitler: "The red peril – This is a heaven sent opportunity my lad. If you can't be a dictator now you never will."

The Nazi government arrested as many of the left-wing political leaders as possible. On 23rd March, 1933, the German Reichstag passed the Enabling Bill. This banned the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party from taking part in future election campaigns. This was followed by Nazi officials being put in charge of all local government in the provinces (7th April), trades unions being abolished, their funds taken and their leaders put in prison (2nd May), and a law passed making the Nazi Party the only legal political party in Germany (14th July).

Q2: Study sources 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 18 and 25. All these sources suggest that the Reichstag Fire was organized by the Nazis. Name the people suggested as being involved in starting the fire.

A2: The photomontage by John Heartfield (source 4) suggests that Hermann Göring was responsible for the Reichstag Fire. This view is supported by the Austrian journalist, Willi Frischauer (source 6), the British cartoonist, David Low (source 11) and the World Socialist Website (source 25).

Karl Ernst (source 13), a senior figure in the SA, apparently signed a confession admitting he carried out the operation, before he was executed by the German government in 1934. The nationalist politician, Ernst Oberfohren (source 14), also named Ernst and Edmund Heines in his memorandum.

Martin Sommerfeldt (source 15) who worked for Göring, believed the real culprit was Joseph Goebbels. Another senior figure in the government, Hans Gisevius (source 18) believes that Goebbels encouraged Ernst to set fire to the Reichstag.

The British journalist, Seftan Delmer (source 8) does not name any individual but does blame the "Nazis" for the fire. This is also the view of the German academic, Victor Klemperer (source 9), who was living in Germany at the time.

Q3: Some historians, such as Fritz Tobias (source 21), A. J. P. Taylor (source 23) and Alan Bullock (source 24), believe that Marinus van der Lubbe started the fire on his own. What evidence do they provide for this view? It will help you to study sources 10, 12, 16, 17, 19 and 20.

A3: Most historians before 1960 believed that the Reichstag Fire was started by figures inside the Nazi government. This changed with the publication of Fritz Tobias' research. He discovered that several former communist journalists, confessed to forging documents that implicated figures such as Göring, Goebbels, Ernst and Heines. Tobias was able to show Heines was speaking at a election meeting a long way from Berlin on the night of the fire (source 23). Tobias points out the communists forged documents of people who were already dead (Ernst, Heines and Oberfohren).

Tobias also makes the very good point that if the Nazis had started the fire they would not have allowed Marinus van der Lubbe to be put on trial: "For had van der Lubbe been associated with them in any way, the Nazis would have shot him the moment he had done their dirty work". During his trial, van der Lubbe constantly denied being involved in any communist conspiracy and insisted he had carried out this act on his own. Even the presiding Nazi judge, Wilhelm Bürger, admitted that the evidence against Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, was insufficient to justify a conviction.

Nazi leaders and government officials such as Rudolf Diels (source 2), Franz von Papen (source 3), Martin Sommerfeldt (source 15) and Hans Gisevius (source 18), who survived the war did give information that suggested a Nazi conspiracy. However, these comments were based on rumours heard at the time and cannot be used as evidence.

Some people have claimed that although Marinus van der Lubbe confessed to working on his own to set fire to the Reichstag (sources 10 and 12) he did not have the time to carry out this act of arson and must have had help. A. J. P. Taylor (source 23) dismisses this argument. Using the evidence of source 16 he was able to show that he had enough time. "Van der Lubbe had over twenty minutes in which to start fires. This was more than enough." He then went on to argue: "At first sight, it seems astonishing that one man could have set fire to this huge building. As a matter of fact, these gaudy public buildings burn easily. Dusty curtains, wooden panelling, high ceilings, draughts under the door – they were made for fires".