The Reichstag Fire and the Politics of History
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The Reichstag Fire and the Politics of History
Hett, Benjamin Carter – Burning the Reichstag. An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 413.

Burning the Reichstag is an intervention in the long and bitter debate about who set fire to the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. More importantly, it is an examination of how historians’ interpretations of this episode of Nazi history were influenced by former Nazis seeking to resume careers in the Federal Republic and those who assisted them in doing so, the dynamics of the Cold War, and possibly some historians’ fear of public calumny and libel suits. The book has much to teach about the methods by which powerful individuals and states have manipulated, and presumably still manipulate, interpretations of events past and present.

The blaze that gutted the chamber in which the German parliament met took place four weeks after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor and one week before a critical national election. Hitler promptly claimed that the fire had been set by Communists, and in doing so succeeded in frightening the conservative German President, Paul von Hindenburg, into granting the national government wide ranging emergency powers to limit freedom of speech, to ban public meetings, to arrest individuals who threatened security, and “temporarily” to assume control of Land (provincial) governments when necessary to restore order. The police and the S.A., the Nazi Party’s paramilitary organization, promptly arrested thousands of Communists and socialists, thereby promoting Nazi fortunes in the election held on March 5, 1933. In the weeks that followed the election, Hitler seized control of the remaining independent Land governments.

While many contemporaries suspected that Hitler or close associates had ordered the arson to create panic and to provide an excuse to take harsh measures against political opponents, the new authoritarian government of Germany looked for the culprits on the political Left. In a trial that began in September 1933, German prosecutors charged one German and three foreign Communists with the crime, as well as a troubled and partially blind Dutch former Communist who had been found in the Reichstag building as it burned and who claimed to have set the fire himself, Marinus van der Lubbe. The case against the four Communists was so weak that the German Supreme Court refused to convict them; van der Lubbe was found guilty and guillotined. The Nazi regime clung to the story that van der Lubbe had acted on behalf of Communists despite the verdict in the trial. [End Page 171]

After the war, historians on both sides of the Iron Curtain argued that the fire had most likely been set by the Nazis themselves, although Hitler’s own involvement was often left unclear.1 In 1959, the postwar consensus was challenged by an official of the Interior Ministry of the West German Land of Lower Saxony, Fritz Tobias, who argued in a series of articles published in the West German weekly magazine Der Spiegel that van der Lubbe was alone responsible for the Reichstag fire. According to Tobias, Hitler and his inner circle had been surprised by the news of the fire and had genuinely believed that Communists were the culprits. Tobias attacked the credibility of experts who examined the building shortly after the fire and who concluded that chemicals must have been used to speed up the blaze. He also dismissed as “historical falsifications” accounts of former Nazi insiders who reported after the war or, in one case, while in exile, that in 1933 they had learned of admissions of responsibility by Nazis.2

Following the publication of Tobias’ articles and, in 1962, book, several prominent British historians who had previously held the Nazis responsible for the Reichstag fire confessed to error. A. J.P . Taylor wrote in an introduction to the abridged English translation of Tobias’ book that “on the Reichstag Fire I was as wrong as everyone else; and I am grateful to Herr Tobias for putting me right .... Herr Tobias has performed a great service for all those who believe in truly free inquiry.”3 Alan Bullock, famous for his biography of Hitler, wrote in a review that he also...