Disclaimer: this post has been on my todo list for a while as part of “deep background research” into my alternate history series. Any similarity to recent events at the US Capitol is neither coincidental nor intentional, but merely unavoidable. “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” (Mark Twain) [*]
Picture this. You have just become the head of government (through a dirty coalition maneuver, let’s say), but your power is constrained by the other parties (including your coalition partners). What you really are after is unfettered power to realize your ‘vision’ of society. What better way to acquire it — and get the majority of people behind you — than to orchestrate an attack on the most visible symbol of democracy, ostensibly carried out by your chief opponent? Giving you a pretext to “suspend democracy in order to save it?”
On Monday night, February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building — then as now Germany’s equivalent of the Capitol building — was on fire. With great difficulty, firefighters were able to control the blaze. Still, the damage was extensive enough that the Reichstag had to meet in the Kroll opera house across the square, until its by then sham existence ended twelve years later. Evidence of arson was quickly discovered, and an unemployed construction worker of Dutch origin, named Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested on the scene. He confessed (presumably after some ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques were applied) to being a communist and to having set the fire. Yet forensic researchers quickly concluded that so many different fires had been started that he could not have done it all alone.
A trial took place in Leipzig — at a time the judiciary in Germany still possessed a semblance of independence — and van der Lubbe stood trial together with KPD faction chair Ernst Torgler and three Bulgarian communists. (It must be pointed out that at the time, the KPD was not a fringe movement in Germany but its third-largest party, after the NSDAP and the Social Democrats. ) The most senior among the Bulgarians, future Comintern and later Bulgarian Communist Party chairman Georgi Dimitrov, famously declined counsel and conducted his own defense with unusual skill and verve. During a notorious mutual cross-examination between himself and Göring, the latter came out looking like a fool and a knave against the wily Dimitrov. In the end, all defendants were acquitted except van der Lubbe, who was sentenced to death and beheaded (under an ex post facto law mandating the death penalty for arson to public buildings). Dimitrov and his companions were expelled across the border and made their way to the USSR.[**]
Meanwhile, already on the morning after the fire, the head of state, Reichspresident Paul von Hindenburg, had signed the Reichstagbrandverordnung (Reichstag Fire Decree). This suspended freedom of expression and the press, habeas corpus, secrecy of the mail and telephone, the right of free association, and other civil liberties. [It wasn’t like they could have Twitter and Facebook censor and permaban people in those days ;)] Three weeks later followed the Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act), which effectively gave the head of government, Chancellor Adolf HisNameBeErased, plenary powers and made him dictator in all but name. (The next year, after Hindenburg’s death, he would merge the Chancellorship and the Presidency into the single dictatorial office of “Führer”, leader.) Theoretically this Enabling Act would expire after four years unless renewed; in practice, what was by then a single-party rubber stamparliament renewed the Enabling Act twice, as need
Postwar historians and writers fall into three camps.
(a) The “sole perpetrator” thesis is primarily defended by Fritz Tobias, a postwar civil servant who moonlighted as a nonfiction writer, and whose book Der Reichstagsbrand was originally serialized in the German weekly Der Spiegel. An experienced arsonist might conceivably have been able to do this alone, and the theory has Occam’s Razor on its side. Tobias got support from Hans Mommsen, the father of the “functionalist” school of Third Reich and Shoah historiography — who saw the Nazis as just exploiting an extraordinary (for them) piece of luck.
(b) In contrast, the entertaining but self-serving, and in places demonstrably unreliable, memoir Bis zum bitteren Ende (“To The Bitter End“) of anti-Hitler conspiracy member Hans-Bernd Gisevius claims the arson was carried out by a ten-man SA squad, led by a construction engineer with the unintentionally cartoonish name Heini Gewehr (“Henny Rifle”). They supposedly making its way from Göring’s official residence (as Reichstag Chairman) to the Reichstag via an underground tunnel connecting to a common boiler room. [Said tunnel did exist.] Unfortunately for that theory, Gewehr — whom Gisevius assumed to be dead — sued him for defamation (he had lost multiple city contracts in Düsseldorf after has alleged role in the Reichstag fire became public) and won the trial at every instance. “Cui bono?” (Latin: whom does it benefit?) definitely militates in favor of “the SA did it themselves”.
(c) This primarily leaves the third (and to me most plausible) option, that van der Lubbe did set some of the fire, but had been lured into doing so under false flag, and that the main arsonists set him up as the fall guy. Benjamin Carter Hett’s academic monograph “Burning The Reichstag” makes this case, although the well-known WW II and Holocaust historian Richard J. Evans, in the London Review of Books, has voiced substantial criticism of Hett’s work (you can read it and Hett’s rebuttal here).
I realize that at many turning points in history, our timeline took the turn it did because of sheer coincidence — indeed, I am exploring a major ‘road not taken’ in an alternate history series. But some ‘happenstances’ are so convenient as to defy credulity — whether they took place in 1933 or last week.
[*] In particular, I am not implying equivalence between the NSDAP and a present-day US political party— even though some of those who claim they are fighting fascists might be given pause if self-aware enough to see their own behavior.
[**] It was the inability to manipulate the outcome of the Leipzig Trial to his liking that led the dictator to create the notorious Volksgericht [People’s Court], a kangaroo court for ‘political’ crimes.
- The Writer In Black: “Political reprisals and the death of the Republic“
- Tom Knighton: “What happened at the Capitol is about more than the election“
- “A wing and a whim” with an eerie atmospheric vignette
The disclaimer is a paraphrase of the German-language one at the beginning of Die verlohrene Ehre der Katarina Blum: by Heinrich Böll: “[…] so sind diese Ähnlichkeiten weder beabsichtigt noch zufällig, sondern unvermeidlich.“