- Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery by Benjamin Hett
Who burned the Reichstag on February 27, 1933? The Nazis claimed a communist plot, an accusation that they failed miserably to support. The Nazis’ many opponents and large segments of the foreign press in turn either accused the Nazis outright or at least suspected them. Yet for the last five decades, historical consensus has decided it was Marinus van der Lubbe, the young Dutch man who, arrested in the Reichstag on the night of the fire, readily confessed and denied having had any help. In Burning the Reichstag, Benjamin Hett has two aims. His first is to refute the “single-culprit theory” that van der Lubbe acted alone. His second is to provide evidence that members of the SA had a hand in recruiting van der Lubbe and preparing the fires that engulfed the Reichstag. Hett wants to see how far up the Nazi hierarchy he can trace that guilt, suggesting the involvement not of Hitler but of Joseph Goebbels. In doing so, Hett attempts to address not only the history of the fire but also the history of that history. He argues that, in the ensuing eighty years, the matter of who started the fire and why has been “launched, shaped, and reshaped by power and interest” (21).
The most compelling part of Hett’s argument is his analysis of the flawed investigation into the fire and the trial of van der Lubbe. As a former trial attorney, Hett is clearly in his element in the courtroom, even if those proceedings occurred eight decades ago. The tale he tells is masterful. His command of the forensic science behind the blaze is especially impressive. Incorporating expert evidence from the trial as well as an assessment written in 1970 by the Institute for Thermodynamics at Berlin’s Technical University, Hett effectively debunks the argument that van der Lubbe acted alone. The minute-by-minute analysis of the blaze’s rapid spread in conjunction with forensic analysis show not only that accelerants were used but also that such a speedy conflagration could not have been possible without them—data which flatly contradict van der Lubbe’s claims that he never used any. Van der Lubbe had only approximately twenty minutes at his disposal, and by his own account, fires seemed to spring up out of nowhere, suggesting that the accelerants had already been laid to aid him in his task. Hett’s analysis on this front is excellent and convincing. It is thus highly unlikely, if not impossible, that van der Lubbe acted alone. [End Page 411]
The discrediting of the single-culprit theory leads, of course, to the question of who helped him. Hett’s argument that the Nazis likely were responsible is based on interesting and well-researched speculation but cannot be proven. The continuous reshaping of the Reichstag fire by those with a stake in the matter has fragmented the truth beyond recovery. Hett’s final chapters, where he details the postwar battle over the fire’s origins, are illuminating only insofar as they shed light on the fire’s contentious and contested history. Hett certainly acknowledges the limitations of his argument that members of the SA had a hand in the blaze, referring to the “fallible and often untrustworthy accounts” of his sources (318). In attempting to trace the order for the fire to Goebbels, he acknowledges that “only a still more tentative conclusion” can be reached (319). Hett’s conclusion lacks the confidence of his argument, leaving this reviewer somewhat frustrated. A more upfront acknowledgment of his study’s limitations would have made for steadier reading.
Hett perhaps should have devoted more attention to the secondary element of his study: discussing how responsibility for the fire has been contested repeatedly since 1933. Instead, Hett uses the evolving discourse on the fire mostly as a tool to prove the Nazis’ involvement. For example, the question of why Fritz Tobias ignored...