International Tracing Service
The Reichstag fire.

On 27 February 1933 the Reichstag was engulfed in flames. In the aftermath, emergency decrees were passed that gave the National Socialist Workers’ Party (German abbreviation NSDAP) a free rein to get rid of democratic rights. Aside from bringing about the NSDAP’s speedy re-action, the fire was used to sentence those arrested after the attack, to increase pressure on political opponents and to consolidate the party’s power. And the fire proved to be the final straw that convinced many intellectuals to go into exile. It is not the abstruse plots it engendered that makes the Reichstag fire relevant for history, but the process it allowed to be set in motion.

Considering that the NSDAP – producing no more than two ministers – was playing a minority role in German Parliament at the time, Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933 did not yet vest him with absolute, with dictatorial power. As his inauguration came at a moment where fierce factional disputes marked Germany’s political situation, strategic advantage could come from such circumstances and favour his aim to overthrow the Democratic social system.

Preparations for the eighth German Reichstag elections, which the NSDAP hoped would bring the majority the party yearned for, were in full swing in February 1933. And in spite of other parties’ active participation, the election campaign augured well for dictatorship. The new Chancellor had become the most important man in the state second to Reich President Paul von Hindenburg only.  

Hitler (ab)used emergency decrees the legal basis and justification of which had been laid down in the Weimar constitution to govern the country and to crush democracy. On 4 February 1933 the “Reich President Decree on the Protection of the German People” signed by von Hindenburg took effect. This ordinance did not only put a stop to all and any election campaign of Democratic parties, but also cleared the way for the Nazis putting arbitrary bans on publications, assemblies and demonstrations.

The intellectual elite of the wavering Weimar Republic still failed to take seriously the danger that emanated from the NSDAP. Though having been sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment by the fourth criminal division of the Reich Court in Leipzig in a spectacular collective criminal procedure against press organs and journalists criticizing the military (ITS documents 12245375 and 12245377) on 23 November 1931, the German writer and editor of the journal “Die Weltbühne”, Carl von Ossietzky, wrote: “After all, the emergency decree against the press is not the first one of its kind”.  By late February already about 150 Communist, Social Democratic and bourgeois newspapers had been banned and several thousands of people arrested.

Leaders of the Social Democratic Party and the Trade Unions had debated whether to call a general strike as early as January 1933. As they, owing to the high unemployment rate among workers, had been in doubt whether a sufficient quantity of labourers could be mobilized to go on strike, their call had failed to come. On 27 February 1933 Members of Parliament unanimously passed the “Ordinance against Treason against the German People and High-Treason Activities” thus legitimising the criminal prosecution of callers of a general strike as high traitors.

Reichstag in Flames

In the evening of that very day the Reichstag burst into flames. In unison, the police and the fire brigade reported that the fire had been caused by arson. For approximately two and a half hours, the firemen had used 15 engines to extinguish the flames. A young Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was found and arrested in the building. Subjected to persistent questioning by the political police, van der Lubbe confessed to the deed protesting that he had acted on his own. Having completed the interrogation, one of the investigators of the case notes down in his final report: “Without a moment’s hesitation the question whether van der Lubbe acted without help ought to be answered in the affirmative.”

This statement met with the disapproval of the party leaders who seemed to see or rather constructed a direct link between the political motives of the young Dutchman and Communists pulling the strings. Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring recognized in the Reichstag fire the unique non-recurring historical chance to take comprehensive persecution action against the Communists. Warning about a “beginning Communist uprising”, they pressed for the declaration of a state of emergency. Hitler had a press communiqué published in which he called the Reichstag fire a “foreboding to bloody uproar and civil war”. Shortly before midnight, the police were given orders to arrest opponents of the regime. Hermann Göring acted promptly and banned the Communist press. Party bureaus were closed, party officials taken into so-called “protective custody”. Ernst Torgler, the then Chairman of the faction of the German Communist Party (German abbreviation KPD), gave himself up to the police endeavouring to protect his party from the accusation of an involvement in the Reichstag arson. He was taken to Berlin-Plötzensee (ITS documents: 11974246; 11975546-11975547).

Entry into Force of the Emergency Decree “For the Protection of People and State”

Passed on 28 February 1933 and known as “Reichstag fire decree” later on, the emergency decree “For the Protection of People and State” invalidated the basic rights and the personal freedom of all Germans. As of now every citizen could be taken into “protective custody” without any tangible charge, for an indefinite period of time and without his or her having the right to raise any objections.

The term “Schutzhaft” (protective custody), “which was to be of central significance for the suppression of oppositional movements/activities in the years to come, was legalised and used as preventive measure to arrest and imprison political opponents.“ (Wolfgang Benz: Geschichte des Dritten Reiches, Munich 2000, p. 19).

Although it was not until 25 January 1938 that the Reich Minister of the Interior defined the term “Schutzhaft” in his order on protective custody, the factual legal basis for orders on protective custody had been created much earlier, i.e. on 28 February 1933, in the decree “For the Protection of People and State” (ITS document 82333573).

Further officials of the German Communist Party (KPD), of the labourers’ parties and numerous intellectuals from the left-wing opposition, among them the Jewish lawyer Hans Litten, the journalist Carl von Ossietzky and the writer Erich Mühsam (among others, the ITS archive contains documents on these persons), were arrested. Many intellectuals fled and went abroad.

In consequence of the mass arrest actions taken, police prisons were overcrowded. By election Sunday, the opponents of the National Socialists had virtually been broken up. The election on 5 March 1933 brought the NSDAP 92 mandates, and the coalition it formed with the German National People Party (German abbreviation DNVP) allowed a swift take over of judicial power throughout the country. Terror against the Opposition increased in violence.

The German-Jewish Romanist Victor Klemperer noted down in his diary on 10 March 1933: “Again it is amazing how everyone and everything collapses without putting up resistance. It has been the very same scene ever since day by day: Commissars, governments smashed, swastika flags waving everywhere, houses taken possession of, people shot dead, bans (put on the more than tame “Berliner Tageblatt” for the first time today). […] A total revolution and a total party dictatorship. And all counteractive forces have disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them up. It is this complete breakdown of a power that had existed until a little while ago, no, its total absence […] that shakes me so”. (Victor Klemperer: Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten. Tagebücher 1933-1941, Berlin 1995, p. 9).

The First Concentration Camps were Established

By spring 1933 40,000 political opponents of the National Socialists had been sent to prison. At the same time the Nazis opened the first, i.e. the early or unofficial, concentration camps using former factories, castles, big gymnasia and barns to assemble in one place the people they had arrested. Even though detention conditions and organisational structures in these “makeshift” camps differed from those prevalent in the concentration camps established later on, everyday life of the camp inmates was marked by physical violence and psychological terror, by forced labour and sporadically also by murder.  

The ITS archive contains documents on these early and unofficial concentration camps some of which had a longer-tem existence: Lichtenburg, Dachau, Oranienburg, Sachsenburg, the Emsland camps (Börgermoor, Esterwegen, Neusustrum), Eutin, Heuberg, “Columbia-Haus”, Hohnstein, Kuhlen, Osthofen, Kemna, Heinersdorf, Sonnenburg, Wittmoor, Kislau, Rosslau, Colditz, Bad Sulza.

On 21 September 1933 legal proceedings were instituted against the Reichstag arsonists. The following persons were charged with having set the Reichstag alight: Marinus van der Lubbe, the Chairman of the Reichstag faction of the German Communist Party Ernst Torgler and three Bulgarian Communists in exile in Germany named Georgi Dimitrow, Wassili Tanew and Blagoj Popow. While the four latter persons accused of complicity only had to be released for a lack of evidence, Marinus van der Lubbe was sentenced to death on 23 December 1933.

After 1945 the case was reopened several times. In January 2008 the sentence against van der Lubbe was finally revoked because it had been based on “specific National Socialist regulations not founded on the rule of democratic law”.

Selected Literature:

Benz, Wigbert/Bernd Bredemeyer/Klaus Fieberg: Nationalsozialismus und Zweiter Weltkrieg. Beiträge, Materialien Dokumente. CD_ROM, Brunswick 2004.

Marcus Giebeler: Die Kontroverse um den Reichstagsbrand. Quellenprobleme und historiographische Paradigmen, Munich, 2010.

Sven Felix Kellerhof: Der Reichstagsbrand. Die Karriere eines Kriminalfalls, Berlin 2008

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