History Remembers: the Reichstag Fire, the incident that helped the Nazis establish a dictatorship

 It was 84 years ago on this very day that the Reichstag Fire occurred, an incident which transformed the German nation at that point. On an evening, a week prior to the start of the March 1933 election in Germany, the Reichstag building was in flames, burning away at the building that was the heart of German politics. It arrived at the perfect time as an opportunity for which the Nazis exploited to the full extent. As the Reichstag building went up in flames, the democracy of the Weimar Republic faced the same fate with the Nazis’ actions following the fire itself.


What was the Reichstag Fire?

The Reichstag Fire was an arson attack that occurred on the night of the 27th February, 1933 at about 9 pm. The incident was treated as an arson attack, by Marinus van der Lubbe, who was claimed by the Nazis to have been a Dutch communist. In reality, he had some left-wing sympathies and previously had committed arson. Furthermore, he personally admitted that the act alone he hoped would inspire the German people to protest against the Nazi government. At the time, the Nazis still were working under the democracy of the Weimar Republic, and did not have a majority in the Reichstag.

Although it is known that van der Lubbe started the fire, it is still a debatable issue whether he alone in the fire itself. He personally was persistent in claiming he worked by himself. Given the fact that the Nazis still had major political opponents, most notably with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), it is speculated that the Nazis played a role in the fire as well, especially as they went on to manipulate the incident and pin it solely on the workings of the communists – this theory was supported by William Shirer, a key Third Reich historian. Two points that support this explanation are that van der Lubbe had ties to the SA leader, Rohm (reportedly was a homosexual prostitute/lover of Rohm), and the existence of a tunnel system that was used by the SA, which directly led to the Reichstag building itself. However, other prominent historians, including AJP Taylor, claim that such a theory has insufficient primary evidence, and thus can not ultimately be confirmed. Regardless of who was truly responsible, the way the Nazis took full advantage of it, made it a crucial point in their process of consolidating power.

Marinus van der Lubbe – he was later executed by the Nazis for his role in the Reichstag Fire (Source: Wikipedia Commons)


What was the significance of the Reichstag Fire?

As mentioned before, the implications of the Reichstag Fire changed Germany significantly. The Nazis exploited the opportunity, as they used it to claim that there was a clear communist conspiracy against the state. By distorting the nature of the incident, there were two main impacts. Firstly, they launched a nationwide attack on the communists, imprisoning over 4000 individuals suspected to being linked to the KPD and shutting down communist publications. But in a shrewd political move, they did not ban the KPD itself, as they used them as a source of fear to scare the German people, which they would further capitalise upon in the March elections.

The second impact, was the passing of the ‘Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State’ (better known as the Reichstag Fire Decree), with the help of President Hindenburg. This supposedly short-term, emergency decree practically eliminated the features of a democracy, including key individual rights and set up the foundation of the one-party dictatorship that would remain for the next twelve years.

Rede Adolf Hitlers zum Ermächtigungsgesetz
The passing of the Enabling Act by Hitler and the Nazis – this eliminated the democracy established in the Weimar Republic 15 years prior (Source: Bundesarchiv, Image 102-14439 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The campaign of fear-mongering against the communists would later be critical to the Nazis’ swift consolidation of power, as they could gain a  majority in the Reichstag (as in the legislative body), after the March elections, and pass the Enabling Act on 23rd March, 1933. It ultimately enabled the Nazis to pass laws without referring to the Reichstag, which stripped away a critical feature of parliamentary democracy. When considered with the Reichstag Fire Decree, they were two important laws that destroyed the Weimar Republic and established the Third Reich.

On a final note, the Reichstag Fire just shows how quickly a democracy can collapse under conditions of chaos and fear. It only took the manipulation of the truth behind a single incident for the Nazis to take control of the whole of German society, especially as afterwards, they guaranteed the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship, through measures such as banning other political parties and merging the offices of chancellor and president to make Hitler the sole dictator.

Extra note: ‘History Remembers’ will be a continuing series of posts on this blog where I present past historical events in a way that occurred on the current day (similar to ‘This Day in History’/’Today in History’, which you may see on other websites) and explain how they are important to both history and the present.


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