Who Set Fire to the Reichstag?

In Burning the Reichstag, Benjamin Carter Hett uncovers new evidence suggesting it could have been the Nazis all along

Brendan Simms

For many years, most people believed that the Nazis burned down the German parliament, the Reichstag, in late February 1933, blaming it on the Communists and using the blaze as the pretext to pass a whole raft of dictatorial measures. This was in large part due to a highly effective contemporary Communist propaganda dossier The Brown Book, which soon turned what could have been a Nazi propaganda coup into an international public relations nightmare. Over the past few decades, however, we have gradually accepted the view that the sole culprit was the Dutch Communist sympathiser, and former party member, Marinus van der Lubbe, who was caught red-handed at the scene. Documents which seemed to confirm Nazi guilt turned out to be forgeries. Now the American historian Benjamin Carter Hett asks us to think again about what he calls “the Third Reich’s enduring mystery”.
The question of who actually burned down the Reichstag mattered not only then, but has mattered since. After the Second World War, there were legal implications for the Nazis involved, who had a personal interest in van der Lubbe’s guilt. With a series of articles on the fire in Der Spiegel that eventually became a book published in 1960, Fritz Tobias questioned the conspiracy- theory version in the context of the Cold War. As a German patriot and Social Democrat, he had good reason to suspect van der Lubbe, sympathiser with a creed that had inflicted such havoc on his party and country, not to mention the eastern half of the continent. Hett shows, however, that Tobias was not squeamish in his methods to ensure that his version of the story prevailed, effectively threatening to expose the Nazi past of his rivals if they persisted in their opposition, and using his position in the German internal intelligence agency to gather information not just on the fire but also on critics of his views.
The Reichstag fire debate also had considerable intellectual ramifications. Tobias saw in the sole guilt of van der Lubbe, and his dismantling of the conspiracy theory, confirmation of his “cock-up” view of history. “We must”, he famously wrote in one Spiegel article, “come to terms with the disturbing fact that blind chance, and error, unleashed a revolution”. A new generation of German historians in the 1960s, led by Hans Mommsen, adopted Tobias’s view, not because they wished to exculpate the Nazis, but because they rejected the “intentionalist” or “Hitler-centric” view of events which saw the dictator proceeding according to a grand plan rather than presiding weakly over a more “polycentric” regime of feuding barons. These structuralist scholars harboured no apologetic intent, rather their desire was to spread the blame more broadly from Hitler and his close associates to the institutions and groups that had made the Nazi dictatorship possible.
Hett, who was once a trial lawyer, subjects the conflagration to a forensic re-examination, building on some recent work, all properly acknowledged. He proves beyond all doubt that van der Lubbe simply could not have started all the fires on his own as the blaze required the use of an accelerant, rather than the firelighters found on his person. He has also uncovered some important new evidence, such as the fact that the Prussian police chief Rudolf Diels, who was in charge of the original investigation, had alleged that the SA man Heini “Pistol” Gewehr had been involved in the fire. Tobias was aware of that fact but chose to suppress it. Hett therefore concludes that the fire was started by the Nazis after all, though not necessarily with Hitler’s prior knowledge. All this is recounted in a vivid narrative peopled with striking tough-talking characters, such as the SA thug “bacon-face” Schmidt, and the Communist fellow traveller pimp Ali Hoehler (“I’m gonna get whacked and that’s official”).
There are, however, still many problems with this interpretation. As Hett himself points out, disproving one version, the “lone arsonist”, does not automatically prove another, in this case a Nazi conspiracy. Its first weakness lies in the involvement of van der Lubbe himself, who was not only a genuine Communist sympathiser but also something of a loose cannon. He would surely not have collaborated willingly with the Nazis, and manipulating him would have been risky. Moreover, while it is true that the regime routinely practised “dirty tricks” it would have been very difficult to keep it quiet until the present day. For example, the staged attack on Gleiwitz Radio station by supposed Polish extremists on the eve of the Second World War, which was designed to deliver a justification for the invasion of Poland, has been known about for some time. This broadly analogous case is not mentioned by Hett. Finally, to suppose that the fire was a freelance Nazi operation not sanctioned from above might suit a rebooted structuralist account, but, given the stakes involved, seems unlikely. 
Against this background, this reviewer would have liked to have seen more effort devoted to the theory that van der Lubbe’s accomplices were in fact Communists. That is the only plausible explanation for his continued insistence that he was acting alone. Hett should perhaps have tried harder to eliminate the Berlin Communists from his inquiries. The Nazis attempted to frame them, to be sure, but they seem to have done so in the genuine belief that the party (if not the other individual defendants) was guilty. If Hett has not quite succeeded in convicting the Nazis of the Reichstag fire, however, he has certainly put them back in the dock. On the basis of the evidence presented here, some of it new and important, they certainly cannot be acquitted. In this situation we should perhaps resort to a verdict possible in Scottish law: not proven.

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