Reichstag Fire

Adolf Hitler used the burning of the Reichstag, the German parliament building, as an excuse to limit civil and political liberties granted under the Weimar Constitution.

Summary of Event

The years following World War I were chaotic ones for Germany. Defeat in war and the humiliation of the peace at Versailles made the populace bitter, frustrated, and angry. They vented their frustration on the Allies, on Jews and other non-German peoples, and above all on the Weimar Republic, which had been created to replace the monarchy. The first wave of turmoil arose from 1918 to 1923, but it subsided as economic conditions improved in the second half of the 1920’s. The Weimar Constitution Weimar Constitution appeared to be working very well, but the outbreak of a worldwide economic depression in 1929 led to a new swell of political agitation based on hatred of certain races and classes. [kw]Reichstag Fire (Feb. 27, 1933)
[kw]Fire, Reichstag (Feb. 27, 1933)
Reichstag fire
Germany;Reichstag fire
[g]Germany;Feb. 27, 1933: Reichstag Fire[08270]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 27, 1933: Reichstag Fire[08270]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 27, 1933: Reichstag Fire[08270]
Hitler, Adolf
Göring, Hermann
Goebbels, Joseph
Lubbe, Marinus van der
Dimitrov, Georgi Mikhailovich
Torgler, Ernst
Hanfstaengl, Ernst
Papen, Franz von
Hindenburg, Paul von

The turbulent years immediately after the war saw the rise of extremist parties on the left and right. From 1919 to 1923, the German Communist Party initiated three uprisings, and nationalist, anticommunist, and anti-Semitic groups also attempted to overthrow the republic and committed acts of terror against its officials. The most infamous uprising of the political right in those years occurred in Munich in November of 1923, when Adolf Hitler led the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch. Beer Hall Putsch (1923) The party did not fare well from 1925 to 1929, but the worldwide economic depression helped Hitler gain the support of many extremist organizations.

As conditions in Germany worsened and political haggling in the Reichstag (the German parliament) accomplished little, the aged and reactionary president of the republic, former Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, disregarded the principles of democratic government. He relied on rule by his aristocratic cronies, principally Franz von Papen, who assumed the chancellorship in 1932. The latter, however, found himself stymied by the Communists and the Nazis, whose strength in the parliament had increased with the Great Depression. Papen came to an agreement with Hitler, whom he hoped to control. After a number of backroom deals, on January 30, 1933, Papen convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as the new chancellor of Germany.

Hitler’s chancellorship did not come through a mass revolution or through the ballot box. Although the Nazi Party had grown rapidly in strength since 1929, Hitler had lost the presidential election to Hindenburg in 1932. Similarly, his Nazis won only 37 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections of July, 1932, although they were able to gain a plurality. Without sufficient popular support, Hitler was forced to find a different way to free himself from Papen’s restrictions.

In one of his first acts as chancellor, Hitler used emergency decrees provided by the constitution to replace the democratically elected government with one led by Hermann Göring, a Nazi minister without portfolio in the national cabinet. Hitler also took measures against the Communists, who were calling for resistance (but were not carrying out any overt acts). Göring raided Communist headquarters in Berlin and closed their printing presses. Up to this point, many had not seen Hitler’s chancellery as a threat because the Nazis remained a minority in the government. The left now became alarmed, and apprehension spread.

On February 25, the day after Göring’s raid, three attempts to start fires in government buildings were aborted. The next day, Hitler’s astrologer, Erik Hanussen, predicted a building would soon go up in flames. On Monday, February 27, a Dutch arsonist, Marinus van der Lubbe, perpetrator of the February 25 attempts, purchased some incendiary materials and went to the Reichstag. After surveying the building from several directions, he entered a nearby structure to wait for dark. At 9:00 p.m., he scaled the wall to the balcony near a little-used entrance. Shortly afterward, a passerby, hearing breaking glass and seeing a person (presumably van der Lubbe) fleeing with a flame in his hands, notified the police. An officer went to the scene but could only watch, transfixed, as flames began to engulf the internal rooms.

By the time the firemen arrived, the building was already burning down. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, an associate of Hitler’s, saw the fire from his apartment and notified Goebbels, who was hosting a party that Hitler and others were attending. At first, neither Hitler nor Goebbels believed Hanfstaengl, who was known for his practical jokes, but as the fire progressed, even the revelers could see the red sky. One report states that Hitler yelled, “It’s the communists!” Hitler and Goebbels went to the scene, where they found Göring distraught over the possible loss of the building’s precious Gobelin tapestries. Göring also blamed the communists. He told Hitler that a number of communist deputies had been in the building shortly before the fire broke out and that one arrest had already been made. Hitler asked about other buildings, and Göring assured him that he had taken precautions to preserve them.

Hitler, Göring, and Papen then conferred on what action to take. Papen went to inform Hindenburg, and Hitler called a meeting of his cabinet and civic and police officials. The police inspector assigned to the case reported that the police had found van der Lubbe, who admitted that he committed the arson as a protest. Göring shouted, “This is the beginning of a communist uprising,” and Hitler added, “Now we’ll show them! Anyone who stands in our way will be mown down!” He threatened to hang or shoot communists, socialists, and even conservative opponents. When the police inspector revealed that van der Lubbe was not a communist and had carried out the deed alone, Hitler refused to believe it. “This is a cunning and well-prepared plot,” he said. The chancellor then went to the offices of the Nazi Party newspaper, Voelkischer Beobachter (people’s observer), and immediately helped compose a version of the story that blamed the communists for the fire. Göring assisted in changing the report of the official Prussian press service to exaggerate the facts and imply that a conspiracy had been involved.

The fire was just the excuse Hitler needed to begin the drive for totalitarian power that would change the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. Hitler argued that a single individual could not have perpetrated the arson and that van der Lubbe had been a member of the International Communist Party and had been arrested twice in Leiden, the Netherlands, for setting fires to public buildings. In fact, however, later research demonstrated that van der Lubbe set the fire alone. The International Communist Party to which he belonged was a small splinter group, more anarchist than Marxist in ideology and not part of the Communist International directed by Moscow. Indeed, van der Lubbe and the Communists loyal to Joseph Stalin had little use for each other.

Göring found four communists to indict in addition to van der Lubbe: Ernst Torgler, a leader of the German Communist Party and a member of the Reichstag, and three Bulgarian agents of the Communist International: Georgi Mikhailovich Dimitrov, Vasili Tanev, and Blagoi Popov. In a spectacular trial in which Hitler, Goebbels, and Göring (one of the prosecutors) hoped to prove to the world that a communist conspiracy actually did exist, the communist defendants, particularly Georgi Dimitrov, proved their innocence. In fact, Dimitrov even accused the Nazis of deliberately setting the fire themselves. He humiliated Göring in an unexpected courtroom confrontation that was broadcast and reported around the world. In other countries, communists and other antifascists organized protests. Nazi opponents convened a countertrial in London with a court of respected international jurists to show that the Nazis did indeed start the fire. Goebbels’s propaganda ploy had backfired, and the government moved the trial from Berlin to Leipzig, where it concluded with little publicity.

The court acquitted the Communists but found van der Lubbe guilty, and he was executed shortly thereafter. Dimitrov, Tanev, and Popov were released and welcomed in the Soviet Union. Some said their acquittal and release came through pressure from Moscow, which threatened retaliation against German citizens living in the Soviet Union. Torgler was released several months after the Bulgarians. Even though the court ruled that the accused Communists were innocent, it said that the fire was part of a more general communist conspiracy.


In 1935, Dimitrov became the secretary-general of the Communist International and the spokesperson for Moscow’s new foreign policy, which was to be implemented by world communist parties promoting antifascist coalitions (even at the expense of delaying the world socialist revolution). In 1948, Dimitrov became prime minister of communist Bulgaria. Popov also returned to Bulgaria after the war and served in a number of government posts. Tanev was killed in guerrilla warfare during World War II. Torgler, falsely accused of being a Nazi agent, was expelled by the German Communist Party. He settled in Hanover, where he retired from political life.

Even before Hitler became chancellor, economic crises and flaws in the Weimar Republic’s constitutional government subjected Germany to stress and social disorientation. The constitution’s provisions allowed President Hindenburg and Chancellor Papen to act in a high-handed manner. They were not concerned about parliamentary or democratic government in general and the Weimar Constitution in particular, and the spirit of the law fell victim to their disregard. The conservative government’s favoritism toward right-wing nationalists allowed Nazi storm troopers to wreak havoc in the German cities and placed Jews, trade unionists, political moderates, and the political left in a state of jeopardy and fear. These events did not bode well for the civil and political freedom that the Weimar Constitution’s drafters had hoped to bring to a recovering Germany.

Papen and Hindenburg’s political manipulations brought Hitler to power, although he needed little excuse to begin antidemocratic and anticonstitutional actions such as the dismissal of state governments and raids on opponents. Nevertheless, the high-handed manner in which the Nazis dealt with power did not help them maintain relationships with aristocrats such as Hindenburg and Papen, who disliked the Nazis not so much because of their nationalist and anticommunist ideology but because of their lower-class origins and crudeness. Hitler’s party may have had the plurality in the Reichstag, but it did not have the majority and had not demonstrated its ability to win a clear victory at the polls.

The Reichstag fire gave Hitler the opportunity to demand the enabling legislation that created his dictatorship. Whether he believed that the communists were conspiring to seize power is immaterial, just as it is immaterial whether, as the communists charged at the time, the Nazis deliberately started the fire to help them secure the passage of such legislation. Historical opinion considered the latter allegation true until the 1960’s, when it was disproved. The fire was an opportune event for Hitler, but if it had not happened, he undoubtedly would have found another route to totalitarian power.

President Hindenburg enacted the enabling legislation on February 28, 1933, the day after the fire. He cited a constitutional provision that permitted the government to rule by decree in times of emergency. The justification was the need for “a defensive measure against communist acts of violence endangering the state.” The decree read, in part: “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 searchers, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”

With the enabling legislation, Hitler outlawed the Communist Party and arrested its leadership. He harassed other opposition parties as well, closing their newspapers and outlawing their meetings. New elections were scheduled for March 5. The government tried to silence the opposition’s campaigns, but the Nazis were still unable to gain more than 44 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, Hitler held full power. He used the legislation to break down the federal structure of the republic and take over all the state governments. Although originally perceived to be temporary, the decrees enacted under the enabling legislation were permanently applied to the Third Reich. Over the ensuing months, the government banned all political parties except the Nazis, and civil and political guarantees were effectively ended. Discriminatory legislation directed against the Jews was put into effect. Political opponents, some even within the Nazi Party, were arrested without cause, forced to emigrate, or even murdered extralegally. The Weimar Republic was dead, and the führer was dictator. Reichstag fire
Germany;Reichstag fire

Further Reading

  • Broszat, Martin, and Volker R. Berghahn. Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany. Translated by Volker R. Berghahn. New York: Berg, 1987. A survey of the descent of the Weimar government through the period before Hitler was appointed chancellor. Bibliography and index.
  • Delmer, Sefton. Trail Sinister: An Autobiography. Vol. 1. London: Secker & Warburg, 1961. The autobiography of an Australian journalist born in Germany. It contains a very good eyewitness account of the Reichstag fire, the trial, and its consequences. Index.
  • Fest, Joachim C. Hitler. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. The best scholarly biography of Hitler, placing him in the context of German history and politics of the twentieth century. Fest tends to follow Tobias (below) on the issue of the Reichstag fire but does not absolutely reject the possibility of a Nazi plot. He believes the actual culprits are irrelevant and argues that the fire provided a convenient excuse to institute totalitarianism. Documented; bibliography, indexed.
  • Fischer, Klaus P. A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Continuum, 1995. The most recent comprehensive account of the Nazi regime, based on research up to the time of its publication. Concludes that the Reichstag fire most likely resulted from the efforts of van der Lubbe and unnamed accomplices.
  • Gilfond, Henry. The Reichstag Fire, February, 1933: Hitler Utilizes Arson to Extend His Dictatorship. New York: Franklin Watts, 1973. An unconvincing argument that the Nazis deliberately burned the Reichstag building in order to stampede Hindenburg into granting Hitler the power to suppress the anticipated Communist revolution.
  • Lee, Stephen J. The Weimar Republic. New York: Routledge, 1998. Overview of the Weimar Republic with a chapter on its collapse. Bibliography.
  • Leers, Johann von [Paulus van Obbergen, pseud.]. The Oberfohren Memorandum. London: German Information Bureau, 1933. An attempt by an official organ of the German government to refute the so-called Oberfohren memorandum. Ostensibly written by Ernst Oberfohren, a former leader of a German political party, and published in the Manchester Guardian on April 27, 1933, the memorandum accused the Nazis of setting the Reichstag fire.
  • Mommsen, Hans. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. Translated by Larry E. Jones and Elborg Forster. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Examines the political, social, and economic developments of Germany in the period 1919-1933.
  • Reed, Douglas. The Burning of the Reichstag. New York: Covici-Friede, 1934. Concludes that van der Lubbe was not guilty, or at least did not act alone.
  • Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988. A widely used college text on the Nazi era which leaves open the question of responsibility for the Reichstag fire, but points out that Hitler gained much from the fire, while it cost the Communists dearly.
  • Tobias, Fritz. The Reichstag Fire. Introduction by A. J. P. Taylor. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1964. This controversial book first revealed the fact that the Nazis did not burn down the Reichstag, but that van der Lubbe did it alone. It is a well-researched refutation of the Brown Book’s thesis (see next entry), although at times it sinks to an anticommunist polemic. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • ______. The Reichstag Fire Trial. Translated by Arnold J. Pomerantz. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1964. Argues that van der Lubbe was guilty of setting fire to the Reichstag building and did act alone. An introduction by famed British historian A. J. P. Taylor supports the author’s position.
  • World Committee for the Victims of German Fascism. The Reichstag Fire Trial: The Second Brown Book of the Hitler Terror. 1934. Reprint. New York: Howard Fertig, 1969. A reprint of the 1934 edition published to demonstrate that the Nazis themselves actually burned down the Reichstag. Critics claim that it is communist propaganda, exaggerating and manufacturing facts and evidence. Presents the case against the Nazis which was believed universally until Fritz Tobias’s research. Contains a list of about 750 victims of Nazi atrocities before March, 1934. Has illustrations but is not indexed.

Beer Hall Putsch

Mein Kampf Outlines Nazi Thought

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

Enabling Act of 1933

Great Blood Purge

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss

Munich Conference

Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact