On 27th February 1933 a young Dutch bricklayer with a grudge against the government set fire to the Reichstag (the Parliament building) in Berlin and inadvertently helped Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to take complete control in Germany.
Marinus van der Lubbe had been a Communist at some stage in his life but had no formal link with the German Communist Party at the time of his action, although he was motivated by a general loathing for capitalism, the workings of which he blamed for Germany’s woes including rampant inflation and mass unemployment.
However, the knowledge that van der Lubbe had been a Communist was enough to prompt the Nazis to launch a crackdown on the opposition. Hitler had been Germany’s Chancellor for a month before the Reichstag fire, and elections were due to be held that the Nazis hoped would give them a clear majority, although this was by no means certain. The destruction of the Reichstag was all they needed as an excuse to demonstrate the dangers that Germany faced from Bolshevism unless the Nazis took complete control.
Van der Lubbe never denied his part in the Reichstag fire, but always claimed that he acted alone. The Nazis thought differently and immediately passed laws that were aimed at all Communists and parties of the Left. The right to peaceful assembly and free speech was withdrawn, press censorship was introduced, and Nazis thugs targeted trade unionists and intellectuals for beatings-up and torture.
Van der Lubbe was tried alongside the head of the Communist Party and three other party members, all of whom were accused of having conspired to torch the Reichstag. However, much to Hitler’s disgust, the court could find no evidence to convict anyone except van der Lubbe, who was duly convicted and later executed.
There has been considerable speculation over the origins of the Reichstag fire, including the theory that van der Lubbe was duped into his action by the Nazis themselves. In the end, the fire was just what Hitler needed to unite public opinion in a fervour of anti-Communism, so it is not inconceivable that this idea has some merit. If van der Lubbe did indeed act alone, as still seems probable, his actions cannot have had anything like the result he intended.
© John Welford