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Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Reichstag Fire, February 27, 2006

Episode 158

Today in 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany was set ablaze. It can be argued that no other act of arson in human history had as big an effect as the destruction of this building did. The fire at the Reichstag was a pivotal event in the coming to power of the Nazi regime in Germany.

The Reichstag building was the home of the German Parliment. Before the fire, the Nazi party held only 32% of the seats in the body, but Adolf Hitler had been sworn into office as Chancellor on January 30th, 1933, meaning that he was the head of government right behind President Paul von Hindenberg, who was very near the end of his life and was probably suffering from senility. He convinced the ailing President to dissolve the Reichstag and hold new elections in March, 1933, something that he legally had the power to do. Hitler’s goal was to gain control of the government at the ballot box, using an anti-Communist platform as a means of convincing the German population that emergency powers had to be granted to the Chancellor.

The fire happened at a very convenient time, just a week before the March 5th elections. When police and firefighters arrived on the scene, they discovered a Dutch Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, hiding at the scene. Hitler was soon there as well and immediately declared that the Communists were behind the arson. He had the party leaders arrested and then contacted President Hindenburg, who agreed to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended the constitution and essentially made Adolf Hitler a dictator.

The March 5th elections went well for the Nazis, but not as well as they had hoped. They turned to bribery, extortion and outright bullying to form a coalition of parties that would vote with them in favor of the Enabling Act, a piece of legislation which allowed the Chancellor, who was Hitler, to pass laws and issue decrees without consulting the Reichstag. The Act was passed; Hitler was made a legal dictator in everything but name.

van der Lubbe, the man found at the scene of the fire, was put on trial, found guilty and was executed. Three other leaders of the Communist Party were put on trial, but they successfully defended themselves and were set free. Hitler was infuriated at this outcome and decreed that all future trials dealing with treason would be dealt with by People’s Courts which could be easily controlled by the Nazis.

It is still a mystery as to who actually set the fires that engulfed the Reichstag building that night 73 years ago, but the convenient timing of the act points towards the Nazis themselves as the real perpetrators. At the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, German General Franz Halder stated that he heard Hermann Goring actually joke about having set the fire himself, although he later denied he ever made a statement like that.

One thing is certain: the Nazi Party in Germany, with Adolf Hitler as its head, used the fire to gain unprecedented political power and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to a world war and the deaths of nearly 60 million people.

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