The Reichstag Burns

Adolf Hitler, the new Chancellor of Germany, had no intention of abiding by the rules of democracy. He intended only to use those rules to legally establish himself as dictator as quickly as possible then begin the Nazi revolution.

Even before he was sworn in, he was at work to accomplish that goal by demanding new elections. While Hindenburg waited impatiently in another room, Hitler argued with conservative leader Hugenberg, who vehemently opposed the idea. Hitler's plan was to establish a majority of elected Nazis in the Reichstag which would become a rubber stamp, passing whatever laws he desired while making it all perfectly legal.

On his first day as chancellor, Hitler manipulated Hindenburg into dissolving the Reichstag and calling for the new elections he had wanted - to be held on March 5, 1933.

That evening, Hitler attended a dinner with the German General Staff and told them Germany would re-arm as a first step toward regaining its former position in the world. He also gave them a strong hint of things to come by telling them there would be conquest of the lands to the east and ruthless Germanization of conquered territories.

Hitler also reassured the generals there would be no attempt to replace the regular army with an army of SA storm troopers. For years this had been a big concern of the generals who wanted to preserve their own positions of power and keep the traditional military intact.

Hitler's storm troopers were about to reach new heights of power of their own and begin a reign of terror that would last as long as the Reich.

President Hindenburg had fallen under Hitler's spell and was signing just about anything put in front of him. He signed an emergency decree that put the German state of Prussia into the hands of Hitler confidant, Vice Chancellor Papen. Göring as Minister of the Interior for Prussia took control of the police. Prussia was Germany's biggest and most important state and included the capital of Berlin.

Göring immediately replaced hundreds of police officials loyal to the republic with Nazi officials loyal to Hitler. He also ordered the police not to interfere with the SA and SS under any circumstances. This meant that anybody being harassed, beaten, or even murdered by Nazis, had nobody to turn to for help.

Göring then ordered the police to show no mercy to those deemed hostile to the State, meaning those hostile to Hitler, especially Communists.

"Police officers who use weapons in carrying out their duties will be covered by me. Whoever misguidedly fails in this duty can expect disciplinary action." - Order of Hermann Göring to Prussian Police, February 1933.

On February 22, Göring set up an auxiliary police force of 50,000 men, composed mostly of members of the SA and SS. The vulgar, brawling, murderous Nazi storm troopers now had the power of police.

Two days later, they raided Communist headquarters in Berlin. Göring falsely claimed he had uncovered plans for a Communist uprising in the raid. But he actually uncovered the membership list of the Communist party and intended to arrest every one of the four thousand members.

Göring and Goebbels, with Hitler's approval, then hatched a plan to cause panic by burning the Reichstag building and blaming the Communists. The Reichstag was the building in Berlin where the elected members of the republic met to conduct the daily business of government.

By a weird coincidence, there was also in Berlin a deranged Communist conducting a one-man uprising. An arsonist named Marinus van der Lubbe, 24, from Holland, had been wandering around Berlin for a week attempting to burn government buildings to protest capitalism and start a revolt. On February 27, he decided to burn the Reichstag building.

Carrying incendiary devices, he spent all day lurking around the building, before breaking in around 9 p.m. He took off his shirt, lit it on fire, then went to work using it as his torch.

The exact sequence of events will never be known, but Nazi storm troopers under the direction of Göring were also involved in torching the place. They had befriended the arsonist and may have known or even encouraged him to burn the Reichstag that night. The storm troopers, led by SA leader Karl Ernst, used the underground tunnel that connected Göring's residence with the cellar in the Reichstag. They entered the building, scattered gasoline and incendiaries, then hurried back through the tunnel.

The deep red glow of the burning Reichstag caught the eye of President Hindenburg and Vice-Chancellor Papen who were dining at a club facing the building. Papen put the elderly Hindenburg in his own car and took him to the scene.

Hitler was at Goebbels' apartment having dinner. They rushed to the scene where they met Göring who was already screaming false charges and making threats against the Communists.

At first glance, Hitler described the fire as a beacon from heaven.

"You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in German history...This fire is the beginning," Hitler told a news reporter at the scene.

After viewing the damage, an emergency meeting of government leaders was held. When told of the arrest of the Communist arsonist, Van der Lubbe, Hitler became deliberately enraged.

"The German people have been soft too long. Every Communist official must be shot. All Communist deputies must be hanged this very night. All friends of the Communists must be locked up. And that goes for the Social Democrats and the Reichsbanner as well!"

Hitler left the fire scene and went straight to the offices of his newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, to oversee its coverage of the fire. He stayed up all night with Goebbels putting together a paper full of tales of a Communist plot to violently seize power in Berlin.

At a cabinet meeting held later in the morning, February 28, Chancellor Hitler demanded an emergency decree to overcome the crisis. He met little resistance from his largely non-Nazi cabinet. That evening, Hitler and Papen went to Hindenburg and the befuddled old man signed the decree "for the Protection of the people and the State."

The Emergency Decree stated: "Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."

Immediately, there followed the first big Nazi roundup as truckloads of SA and SS roared through the streets bursting in on known Communist hangouts and barging into private homes. Thousands of Communists as well as Social Democrats and liberals were taken away into 'protective custody' to SA barracks where they were beaten and tortured.

"I don't have to worry about justice; my mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!" - Hermann Göring, March 3, 1933.

Fifty one anti-Nazis were murdered. The Nazis suppressed all political activity, meetings and publications of non-Nazi parties. The very act of campaigning against the Nazis was in effect made illegal.

"Every bullet which leaves the barrel of a police pistol now is my bullet. If one calls this murder, then I have murdered. I ordered this. I back it up. I assume the responsibility, and I am not afraid to do so." - Hermann Göring.

Nazi newspapers continued to print false evidence of Communist conspiracies, claiming that only Hitler and the Nazis could prevent a Communist takeover. Joseph Goebbels now had control of the State-run radio and broadcast Nazi propaganda and Hitler's speeches all across the nation.

The Nazis now turned their attention to election day, March 5.

All of the resources of the government necessary for a big win were placed at the disposal of Joseph Goebbels. The big industrialists who had helped Hitler into power gladly coughed up three million marks. Representatives from Krupp munitions and I. G. Farben were among those reaching into their pockets at Göring's insistence.

"The sacrifice we ask is easier to bear if you realize that the elections will certainly be the last for the next ten years, probably for the next hundred years," Göring told them.

With no money problems and the power of the State behind them, the Nazis campaigned furiously to get Hitler the majority he wanted.

On March 5, the last free elections were held. But the people denied Hitler his majority, giving the Nazis only 44 per cent of the total vote, 17, 277,180. Despite massive propaganda and the brutal crackdown, the other parties held their own. The Center Party got over four million and the Social Democrats over seven million. The Communists lost votes but still got over four million.

The goal of a legally established dictatorship was now within reach. But the lack of the necessary two thirds majority in the Reichstag was an obstacle. For Hitler and his ruthless inner circle, it was obstacle that was soon to be overcome.

As for Van der Lubbe, the Communist arsonist, he was tried and convicted, then beheaded.

Copyright © 1996 The History Place™ All Rights Reserved

NEXT SECTION - Hitler Becomes Dictator
The Rise of Hitler Index
The History Place Main Page