Spartacus Blog

The Reichstag Fire was not a Nazi Conspiracy: Historians Interpreting the Past

On 12th January, 2008, The Guardian reported that Marinus van der Lubbe, had been pardoned for his role in the Reichstag Fire. Not that this news helped Van der Lubbe as he was beheaded on 9th January, 1934. Although he openly confessed his crime he was exonerated under a law passed in 1998 that allowed pardons for people convicted of crimes in Nazi Germany, based on the concept that Nazi law "went against the basic ideas of justice".

The article points out: "Police arrested Van der Lubbe in the burning building, and he is said to have confessed that he started the fire in order to encourage a workers' uprising against the rise of the Nazis. However, historians remain divided over the event. The Nazis said it was a communist plot and used the fire in propaganda. Most modern historians are in agreement that Van der Lubbe was involved in the fire, but whether he acted alone or with accomplices is still open to debate." (1)

This is not actually true. Historians who have studied the case are not divided on this issue and they all believe his confession was indeed accurate and that he did set fire to the Reichstag parliament on his own. It is true that for a long time most people believed that it was either a Communist or Nazi conspiracy. Those who were sympathetic to Adolf Hitler, such as the Daily Mail, were willing to believe that the German Communist Party (KPD) were behind the fire. Whereas, the anti-fascist media, argued that Hermann Göring or Joseph Goebbels, had organised it so that they could abandon the democratic process.

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
Marinus van der Lubbe

On the night of the fire Hitler gave orders that all communists should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". Orders were given for all KPD members of the Reichstag to be arrested. This included Ernst Torgler, the chairman of the party. Göring commented that "the record of Communist crimes was already so long and their offence so atrocious that I was in any case resolved to use all the powers at my disposal in order ruthlessly to wipe out this plague". (2)

Torgler was interviewed by the Gestapo. He was able to give details of having left the Reichstag building at 8.15 p.m. and arriving at the Aschinger Restaurant at 8.30 p.m. Witnesses confirmed this but his alibi was rejected and he was placed in custody and for the next seven months he was "fettered day and night". (3) Torgler complained: "It was left to the warders' discretion either to tighten our chains until the blood circulation was gravely impeded, and the skin broke, or else to take pity on us and to loosen the chains by one notch." (4)

Hitler told Franz von Papen: "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." Hitler claimed that this was clearly an attempted coup and that leading members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) should also be arrested. (5) Seftan Delmer claimed he heard Hitler say: "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." (6)

Willi Frischauer, the Berlin correspondent for the Vienna newspaper, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, commented that on the night of the fire that he believed that the Nazis where behind the fire: "There can scarcely be any doubt that the fire which is now destroying the Reichstag was set by henchmen of the Hitler government. By all appearances, the arsonists used an underground passage connecting the Reichstag to the palace of its president, Hermann Göring." (7)

This view was shared by other journalists: "The arson of the German parliament building was allegedly the work of a Communist-sympathizing Dutchman, van der Lubbe. More probably, the fire was started by the Nazis, who used the incident as a pretext to outlaw political opposition and impose dictatorship... The fire broke out at 9.45 tonight in the Assembly Hall of the Reichstag. It had been laid in five different comers and there is no doubt whatever that it was the handiwork of incendiaries." (8)

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
David Low, The Trial of a Trial (21st September, 1933)

The belief in a Nazi conspiracy was hardening by the news 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, trades unions being abolished, their funds taken and their leaders put in prison, and a law passed making the Nazi Party the only legal political party in Germany. (9)

On the 26th April, 1933, the Manchester Guardian, published an article that suggested that the Reichstag Fire had been organized by Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels and carried out by Edmund Heines and a group of SA officers. The article claimed that this information was based on a memorandum that it had received from a prominent Nationalist politician in Germany. A few months later it was revealed that the document had been written by Ernst Oberfohren, the parliamentary leader of the German National People's Party, and it therefore became known as the Oberfohren Memorandum.

The view of a Nazi conspiracy became even stronger when a German newspaper reported: "On Sunday, the fifty-three-year-old former German Nationalist Deputy, Dr Oberfohren, shot himself in his own home. We learn that Oberfohren took his life at about twelve o'clock, before lunch, when his wife was not at home. The cause seems to be a conflict with his Party." (10)

On 9th March, 1933, three Bulgarians, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, were also arrested after a suspicious waiter informed the police that they had been acting strangely. Dimitrov had been a trade union activist before helping to form the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1919. Dimitrov went to live in the Soviet Union but in 1929 he moved to Berlin where he became head of the Central European section of Comintern. (11) However, the Nazi government was unaware that Dimitrov was one of the most important figures in the "international Communist movement". (12)

The trial of Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev began on 21st September, 1933. The presiding judge was Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bürger of the Supreme Court. The accused were charged with arson and with attempting to overthrow the government. (13)

Time Magazine reported that Marinus van der Lubbe had made a full confession in court: "Marinus van der Lubbe, who has sat as though drugged or stupefied for weeks on end, suddenly leaped to his feet, clear-eyed and bubbling with protests which he hurled at Presiding Judge Dr. Wilhelm Bünger." The magazine added that van der Lubbe shouted: "This trial began in Leipzig, then moved to Berlin, and now we are back in Leipzig but nothing ever happens. I don't agree to that! I burned down the Reichstag and I want to have my sentence - twenty years in prison or Death!" (14)

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
Marinus van der Lubbe in court (September, 1933)

Douglas Reed, reporting the trial for The Times, commented: "Attempts from all sides of the court to wrest from van der Lubbe the secret of his accomplices, however, were parried in a manner that indicted either great cunning or the sincere conviction that he had none... There remained only two possibilities - that van der Lubbe had no accomplices or that he did not himself know who they were. The one man from whom, it had been thought, the secret might yet be wrested, either would not yield it or had none to yield." (15)

On 23rd December, 1933, Judge Wilhelm Bürger announced that Marinus van der Lubbe was guilty of "arson and with attempting to overthrow the government". Bürger concluded that the German Communist Party (KPD) had indeed planned the fire in order to start a revolution, but the evidence against Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, was insufficient to justify a conviction. (16)

While the Reichstag Fire was going on in 1933, a Commission of Inquiry into the Burning of the Reichstag was established and presided over by an "International Committee of Jurists and Technical Experts" in London. As well as the Oberfohren Memorandum the commission also looked at what was considered to be a confession by Karl Ernst, a Sturmabteilung (SA) officer. He claimed that on the orders of Hermann Göring and Wolf von Helldorf, he along with Edmund Heines, had helped to set fire to the Reichstag. "Helldorf told me that the idea was to find ways and means of smashing the Marxists once and for all". "We spent hours settling all the details. Heines, Helldorf and I would start the fire on the 25th February, eight days before the election. Göring promised to supply incendiary material of a kind that would be extremely effective yet take up very little space."

Ernst went on to point out: "A few days before the fixed date, Helldorf told us that a young fellow had turned up in Berlin of whom we should be able to make good use. This fellow was the Dutch Communist van der Lubbe. I did not meet him before the action. Helldorf and I fixed all the details. The Dutchman would climb into the Reichstag and blunder about conspicuously in the corridor. Meanwhile I and my men would set fire to the Session Chamber and part of the lobby. The Dutchman was supposed to start at 9 o'clock - half an hour later than we did.... Van der Lubbe was to be left in the belief that he was working by himself." (17)

Karl Ernst said that he had signed this document on 3rd June, 1934, because he feared for his life. "I am doing so on the advice of friends who have told me that Göring and Goebbels are planning to betray me. If I am arrested, Göring and Goebbels must be told at once that this document has been sent abroad. The document itself may only be published on the orders of myself or of the two friends who are named in the enclosure, or if I die a violent death." Ernst was in fact executed on 30th June, 1934, as part of the Night of the Long Knives. (18)

Adolf Hitler addresses the German people on radio on 31st January, 1933
John Heartfield, Executioner of the Third Reich (September, 1933)

At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial attempts were made to discover who started the Reichstag Fire. General Franz Halder argued that at a luncheon on the birthday of Adolf Hitler in 1942 the conversation turned to the topic of the Reichstag building and its artistic value. "I heard with my own ears when Hermann Göring interrupted the conversation and shouted: The only one who really knows about the Reichstag is I, because I set it on fire!" (19)

However, at the trial, Göring insisted that he had not been responsible for the fire. "I had nothing to do with it. I deny this absolutely. I can tell you in all honesty, that the Reichstag fire proved very inconvenient to us. After the fire I had to use the Kroll Opera House as the new Reichstag and the opera seemed to me much more important than the Reichstag. I must repeat that no pretext was needed for taking measures against the Communists. I already had a number of perfectly good reasons in the forms of murders, etc." (20)

Martin Sommerfeldt worked for Hermann Göring in 1933. After the war Martin Sommerfeldt wrote his memoirs, I Was There (1949). Sommerfeldt, who was Göring's press officer, wrote in detail about the Reichstag Fire. He claimed that Göring refused to accept the evidence that was originally collected that suggested that Marinus van der Lubbe was working on his own. Göring insisted that the "whole thing was a signal for a Communist uprising!"

Martin Sommerfeldt claimed that Göring told him he would write his own report: "Göring started dictating to his secretary without once stopping, but glancing at a piece of paper now and then. He gave it out as an established fact that the Reichstag fire had been intended as a signal for a Communist campaign of bloodshed and arson. He ordered the police to take all Communist officials into protective custody and to confiscate all Marxist newspapers. Göring multiplied my own figures by ten, with a side-long glance in my direction." (21)

However, Göring, came up with another theory of the fire. By talking to senior figures in the Nazi Party, Sommerfeldt became convinced that Joseph Goebbels was the one responsible for the Reichstag Fire. This came initially from a conversation with Ernst Röhm: "I dropped a gentle hint that the Reichstag fire trial had led to personal differences between Göring and myself, and Röhm asked in surprise: "What on earth did Göring have to do with the whole business?" He then went on to claim that the "devil Goebbels was responsible". (22)

"From the night of the fire to this day, I have been convinced that the Reichstag was set on fire neither by the communists nor Herman Göring, but that the fire was the piece de resistance of Dr. Goebbels's election campaign, and that it was started by an handful of Storm Troopers all of whom were shot afterwards by SS commandoes in the vicinity of Berlin. There was talk of ten men, and of the Gestapo investigating the crime." Sommerfeldt also got information from Karl Ernst and Rudolf Diels on the fire: "This was reported to me on the one hand by Ernst, the Chief of the Berlin Stormtroopers, who was filled with poisonous hatred of Goebbels, and also by the police chief Dr. Diels who gave me exact details about the crime and the identification of the 10 victims." (23)

Sommerfeldt added that this showed that all the Nazi leaders thought one another "capable of any piece of villainy". He was also aware that some people thought that because he was close to Göring, he was also part of the conspiracy: "This very fact was enough to stamp me an incendiary as well. It is understandable, therefore, why this stupid charge suggested to me that the accusations against the others might be just as false." (24)

Other evidence of a Nazi conspiracy came from Hans Gisevius, an official of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior at the time of the fire. He disapproved of the illegal activities of the Nazi government and resigned his post. He later went to work with Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster of Abwehr. Gisevius joined the German resistance and was passing information to John Foster Dulles of the Office of Strategic Services. He managed to flee to Britain and in his book, To The Bitter End (1947), he argued that the Nazis had been responsible for the Reichstag Fire. (25)

For the next ten years the world accepted that the Reichstag Fire was the result of a Nazi conspiracy. This what was included in all the books that were published on Nazi Germany. In fact, it was considered to be in bad taste to even question this assumption.

However, one man, after reading the transcripts of the trial, did begin to ask serious questions about who started the fire. Fritz Tobias, a retired civil servant, accepted that the Nazi government made use of the fire to impose a dictatorship on the German people, but was not convinced that they arranged for it to take place.

Tobias discovered that historians had relied heavily on the conclusions of the "Commission of Inquiry into the Burning of the Reichstag" that reported its findings in September, 1933. They had relied on the evidence of the Oberfohren Memorandum and the Karl Ernst confession. The report was published at the same time the Reichstag Fire trial started and did not take into account of what was said in court.

Historians also used the information that appeared in The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag (1933). This was also published before the court-case finished. However, a second edition was published in 1934, which dealt with the full confession that was made by Marinus van der Lubbe in court. It was claimed that this should be ignored as his testimony must have been as a result of being tortured by the Gestapo. However, if you read the court transcripts, it is quite clear that despite considerable pressure from the prosecution, he refused to implicate other communists in his crime.

Time Magazine reported on 6th December, 1933: "I (Marinus van der Lubbe) have been questioned for over eight months. I want something to happen! This trial has now been going on for two months. How long is it going to take to get a verdict?" The Chief Prosecutor stated: "This trial has lasted so long because you will not reveal your accomplices." Lubbe replied, "I set the fire. None of these other defendants had anything to do with it". (26)

It is because van der Lubbe did not provide any evidence against Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev, that the Supreme Court found the men not guilty. The Nazi daily newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, condemned the verdict on the Communists and described it as a miscarriage of justice "that demonstrates the need for a thoroughgoing reform of our legal life, which in many ways still moves along the outmoded liberalistic thought that is foreign to the people". (27)

Adolf Hitler was furious that the rest of the defendants were acquitted and he decided that in future all treason cases were taken from the Supreme Court and given to a new People's Court, set up on 24th April 1934, where prisoners were judged by members of the Nazi Party. It was also announced that Ernst Thalmann, the leader of the KPD, had been charged with planning a revolutionary uprising. He was later to be executed without a trial. (28)

Fritz Tobias points out that the actions taken by the Nazi government after the Reichstag Fire shows that they were not responsible: "Today there seems little doubt that it was precisely by allowing van der Lubbe to stand trial that the Nazis proved their innocence of the Reichstag fire. 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, blaming his death on an outbreak of 'understandable popular indignation'. Van der Lubbe could then have been branded a Communist without the irritations of a public trial, and foreign critics would not have been able to argue that, since no Communist accomplices were discovered, the real accomplices must be sought on the Government benches". (29)

After making an extensive study of The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag Fritz Tobias came to the conclusion that it was based on forged documents. Arthur Koestler, who had been part of the team working on the book, admitted that the "Obeffohren Memorandum" had been written by them. (30)

Another important document, the signed confession by Karl Ernst, was also shown to be a forgery. Erich Wollenberg, a KPD member, who worked with Willi Münzenberg on the book, admitted that the "Ernst testament, which was concocted by a group of German Communists in Paris - including Bruno Frei and Konny Norden - after Ernst's murder on June 30th, 1934, and only published after Dimitrov himself edited it in Moscow." (31)

Two of the men, Ernst Hanfstaengel, and Richard Fiedler, mentioned by Ernst as knowing about the Nazi conspiracy to set fire to the Reichstag, both survived the war. They both told Tobias that the "Ernst confession was a complete fabrication". (32) Tobias was also able to show that Edmund Heines, who according to the document, helped Ernst to set the building on fire, was in fact that night at an election meeting in far-away Gleiwitz. (33)

In 1960, Fritz Tobias, published a series of articles on his investigation in Der Spiegel. Historians were quick to accept that Tobias was right and that they had been wrong. A. J. P. Taylor, wrote in History Today: " Who actually started the Reichstag fire? The Nazis said it was the work of Communists. They tried to establish this verdict at the trial of the supposed incendiaries before the High Court at Leipzig. They failed. Hardly anyone now believes that the Communists had a hand in the Reichstag fire. If not the Communists, then who? People outside Germany, and many inside it, found a simple answer: the Nazis did it themselves. This version has been generally accepted. It appears in most textbooks. The most reputable historians, such as Alan Bullock, repeat it. I myself accepted it unquestioningly, without looking at the evidence." (34)

When Alan Bullock published his revised edition of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) he agreed that he had been wrong to claim that the Reichstag Fire was a Nazi conspiracy: "Herr Tobias's conclusion rejects both the Nazi and the anti-Nazi account in favour of van der Lubbe's own declaration, from which he never wavered, that he alone was responsible for the fire and that he carried it out as a single-handed act of protest. Herr Tobias may well be right in arguing that this, the simplest explanation of all, is the true one." (35)

The Reichstag Fire is a good example of how historians can be guilty of making claims by examining the work of other historians without looking at the original evidence. The problem is that textbook writers and journalists are still claiming that the Reichstag Fire was started by Nazis rather than a mentally disturbed anarchist. I recently corrected a friend, a former history teacher, when he repeated the traditional story of the fire. His response to the evidence I provided was "that's boring". I suppose the truth of the matter is that we all prefer a good conspiracy story to the truth.



(1) Kate Connolly, The Guardian (12th January, 2008)

(2) Richard Overy, Goering: The Iron Man (1984) page 25

(3) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 349

(4) Ernst Torgler, Die Zeit (4th November, 1948)

(5) Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936 (1998) page 458

(6) Seftan Delmer, Daily Express (28th February, 1933)

(7) Willi Frischauer, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung (27th February, 1933)

(8) Seftan Delmer, Daily Express (28th February, 1933)

(9) James Taylor and Warren Shaw, Dictionary of the Third Reich (1987) pages 88-89

(10) Hannoverscher Anzeiger (8th May 1933)

(11) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 67

(12) Henry Gifford, The Reichstag Fire (1973) page 71

(13) Konrad Heiden, Hitler: A Biography (1936) page 437

(14) Time Magazine (4th December, 1933)

(15) Douglas Reed, The Burning of the Reichstag (1934) page 265

(16) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 68

(17) Karl Ernst, signed confession (3rd June, 1934)

(18) Paul R. Maracin, The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours that Changed the History of the World (2004) pages 120-122

(19) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) page 241

(20) Hermann Göring, statement at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial (14th March, 1946)

(21) Martin Sommerfeldt, I Was There (1949) pages 60-61

(22) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 90

(23) Martin Sommerfeldt, letter to Richard Woolf (18th January, 1956)

(24) Martin Sommerfeldt, I Was There (1949) page 30

(25) Hans Gisevius, To The Bitter End (1947) pages 69-70

(26) Time Magazine (4th December, 1933)

(27) Völkischer Beobachter (24th December, 1933)

(28) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) pages 68-69

(29) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 72

(30) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 117

(31) Erich Wollenberg, Echo of the Week (12th August, 1949)

(32) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 143

(33) Fritz Tobias, The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth (1963) page 110

(34) A. J. P. Taylor, History Today (August, 1960)

(35) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 263

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