The Curious Case of the Reichstag Fire: A Story from the Guardian Archive

Jane Speller, Project Archivist for the Guardian newspaper foreign correspondence cataloguing project, writes:

The burning down of the Reichstag building in Berlin, the main seat of the German Parliament, in 1933 remains one of the sensational happenings of the twentieth century. This pivotal event was the first step towards the solidification of Hitler’s dictatorship and the most devastating war the world has ever known. The subject of many books, the story encompasses Nazi plots, Communist stooges, secret passages into the Reichstag, a powerful clairvoyant and a mock trial. Even today the true facts surrounding the fire are a mystery.

The fire, the furore following it, and the suspicious deaths of several of the main protagonists, were widely reported in newspapers around the world. Manchester Guardian foreign correspondents Robert Dell, Alexander Werth and Frederick Voigt were all involved in reporting the events.

Reichstag Building, Berlin
Reichstag Building, Berlin

Our story begins in Berlin on the night of 27 February 1933, six days before Germany’s general election. A fire, believed to have been started deliberately, destroys the Reichstag. Dr Bell who reported seeing the fire as it started is shot dead attempting to flee into Austria. A young Dutch man, a drifter and former Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe and several senior Comintern officials including Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev and Blagoi Popov are arrested. The authorities are on the point of arresting Ernst Torgler, Chair of the Communist Party in the Reichstag, when he turns himself in.

The fire was predicted by the famous clairvoyant and playboy Erik Hanussen who was close to Hitler and several other senior Nazis, including Count von Helldorf. Known as the Prophet of the Third Reich, Hanussen’s fire prediction was possibly a miscalculated piece of inside information that led to his murder on March 25.

The Great Depression left eight million Germans out of work, and more than three million militant workers swelled the ranks of the German Communist Party. In this chaos, support for the Nazi Party wavered. The Reichstag fire presented Hitler with the perfect opportunity to blame the Communists and Socialists in ‘one great big Bolshevik plot’, as William Crozier, Editor of the Manchester Guardian, described it. The March 5 election went ahead as planned but now in the shadow of the so called attempted Communist revolt. Hitler’s Enabling Act of March 24 abolished civil liberties and transferred state powers to the Government, effectively transforming it into a de facto legal dictatorship. Mass arrests followed, including those of the poet and playwright Erich Mühsam, pacifist Carl Von Ossietzky, lawyer Hans Achim Litten, Leader of the Communist Party Ernst Thälmann, and Social Democrat Party member Ernst Heilmann, all of whom later died in custody.

Marinus van der Lubbe (Wikimedia Commons)
Marinus van der Lubbe (Wikimedia Commons)

A memorandum accusing the Nazis of starting the Reichstag Fire was circulated by Ernst Oberfohren, Leader of the Nationalist People’s Party. Denounced as a fake by the Nazis, the memo also claimed that Van der Lubbe was led into the building by Nazis via an underground passage and left there to be found and captured. On April 27, in what was a scoop for the paper, the Manchester Guardian published the memo. Oberfohren was arrested and on May 7 he was found shot dead. The Nazis reported it as a suicide, but as Voigt writes to Crozier, ‘It has been stated on “high authority” that the Nazis forced Oberfohren to commit suicide… Murder by driving men to suicide is becoming common in Germany’.

Torgler and his fellow defendants were charged with arson and treason. They were tried in Leipzig from September 21 to December 23. Dell was tasked with covering the event as Crozier did not consider it safe for Voigt or Werth to be in Germany. At the last minute, Dell was refused entry into the trial.

A Parallel Trial was held in London on September 14-21. Organised by a group of lawyers, democrats and other anti-Nazis under the aegis of German Communist émigrés, the trial featured nine international lawyers including Betsy Bakker-Nort of the Netherlands. Most of the documents used in the trial were supplied by Voigt. A verdict was given that all the defendants were innocent and that the Reichstag building had been set on fire by Nazi Party officials.

Ernst Torgler and Betsy Bakker-Nort
Ernst Torgler and Betsy Bakker-Nort

The Reichstag fire story is heavily covered in the foreign correspondence up until the end of 1933, particularly that of Voigt. The letters are mostly between Voigt and Crozier, but one interesting letter has survived from a young German woman called Maria Reese. At the time of writing the letter on May 7, Reese, an elected member of the Communist Party in the Reichstag and a colleague of Torgler, had fled Germany for fear of her life. She begins her letter, which she asks the paper to publish, by thanking the Manchester Guardian for their ‘brave fight’ against the terrible crimes of German fascism. She writes fervently in defence of Torgler, defending his character against any accusation of involvement in the fire. She fears the Nazis will murder Torgler in prison. Written in Deutsche Kurrentschrift style, the content is very emotive and frequently jumps between topics and ideas as she describes her flight across Europe and her contact with various Communist groups. (Thank you to our John Rylands Research Institute colleague, Dr Katharina Keim, her mother and her aunt, who painstakingly translated this letter for us).

The Leipzig trial was a strange affair. Van der Lubbe appeared throughout to be in a drugged state. It was rumoured that he was the lover of one of the Nazi elite, Ernst Röhm, and a Nazi dupe. A number of important pieces of evidence and key witnesses mysteriously went missing. Werth reports, ‘The Nazis are eliminating all uncomfortable witnesses to the fire’. Voigt reports on ‘one significant absentee’, Dr Hugenberg a friend of Oberfohren who knew Torgler and, according to Voigt, had a high opinion of him. Sworn statements from the waiters of Aschinger’s restaurant and other people living near the Reichstag building all disappeared.

Van Der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. The other defendants were acquitted and expelled to the Soviet Union where they received a hero’s welcome. Torgler was acquitted but taken into ‘protective custody’ by the Gestapo. Hitler was said to be furious with the outcome of the trial.

Evidence given during the Nuremburg trials (1946-49) seemed to indicate (although not conclusively) that Hitler’s right hand men, Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, were responsible for the fire.

2 comments on “The Curious Case of the Reichstag Fire: A Story from the Guardian Archive

  1. Ana Elisa

    Just catching up on your blog entries now, but I wanted to comment and say this particular series of blog entries from the Guardian newspaper foreign correspondence cataloguing project are riveting!

  2. Thank you Ana! We have a new project starting in April 2016 – focusing on C.P. Scott’s editorial correspondence in the Guardian Archive, so there should be some more Guardian-related blog posts coming up during the next year.

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