Sunday, December 27, 2009

Who Burned Down The Reichstag-- And Brought Hitler To Power

On the night of February 27, 1933 in Berlin, the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament and the symbol of the German state, was ablaze. While it was still smouldering, German police arrested Marinus Van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist with a history of setting buildings on fire. Also at the crime scene was Adolph Hitler, the newly appointed leader of a shaky coalition government. Only hours later he proclaimed that the crime was not the work of a lone arsonist but part of a wider Communist plot to overthrow the German government calling the it a warning"sign from heaven" of the impending Communist Putsch. With such rhetoric, he persuaded President Paul von Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire decree, which temporarily suspended civil liberties in Germany and allowed the mass arrest of Communists, including its members in parliament. After a snap election, Hitler’s Nazi party had the majority necessary to pass the laws that would make Hitler dictator.
To provide evidence of a Communist plot, German authorities arrested Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian Communist, and Stalin’s chief of covert operations in central Europe. They also arrested two his Communist associates, Vasil Tanev and Blagoi Popov. Together with Van Der Lubbe, they were charged with a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The Show trial ran from September to December 1933, and by almost any measure qualified as the trial of the century. It was presided over by judges fromGermany's highest court. It had Hermann Goring, the creator of Hitler’s Gestapo, and other senior Nazi leaders, as star witnesses, and it was one of the first trials to be broadcast live via radio to the entire world. It began on the morning of September 21, 1933 with the rambling testimony of Van der Lubbe. He admitted setting the fire but claimed he had acted entirely on his own. The prosecution then produced evidence found by firemen, including twenty bundles of inflammable material strategically located in different parts of the Reichstag, that cast doubt on the idea that Van der Lubbe, who was half blind, could himself have placed and rigged all these incendiary devices without help. Next Dimitrov, the operative accused of masterminding the conspiracy, was called to the stand. Though not a lawyer, he acted as his own defense lawyer. He agreed with the prosecutors that the fire had been set by a conspiracy, but, turning the tables on them, he argued that it was a Nazi not a Communist conspiracy, With great dramatic flair, he cross-examined Goring about his role in the investigation and the sequence in which evidence was uncovered. Allowing a worldwide radio audience to hear Stalin’s principal agent brutally interrogate Hitler’s alter ego in a German court room about inconsistencies in the investigation. At one point, he provoked a heated exchanges between himself and Goring on the nature of Communism. Dimitrov’s defense proved so effective that he, as well as his two Communist associates, were acquitted. Hitler and Goring were outraged at the verdict, but the chief judge explained that whereas the court was convinced that the fire resulted from a Communist conspiracy, the prosecutors had failed to prove Dimitrov and his associates was part of it. The only person convicted was the hapless Van der Lubbe, who was beheaded in 1934.
While the Leipzig trial was still under way, a counter-trial was staged in London by Willi M├╝nzenberg, the brilliant propaganda chief for the Stalin-controlled Communist International. The evidence it produced took the form of dramatic revelations from masked men who claimed to be Nazi defectors, including one who identified himself as a former storm trooper and testified that his unit in Berlin had set the fire on direct orders from Goring. Another witness identified Van der Lubbe as the homosexual lover of a top Nazi commander and was used as a fall guy. At the end of the one week counter-trial, Goring was convicted of burning down the Reichstag fire to bring Hitler to power. But though the counter-trial provided much grist for the media mill, it turned out that all its evidence had been faked by M├╝nzenberg’s staff. The masked witnesses were not Nazi defectors but Communist loyalists acting out scripted parts. The "Nazi storm trooper," for example, was played by Albert Norden, the editor of the leading Communist newspaper in Germany. By blending together a cocktail of fact and fiction, the counter-trial served to further pollute the evidentiary waters.
When the Red Army captured Berlin in 1945, it also captured the Gestapo archive. Stalin ordered this trove of documents, including some 50,000 pages of legal proceedings and Gestapo investigations bearing on the Reichstag fire, transported under seal to Moscow. For over three decades, they remained a state secret. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, part of this archive was opened to researchers. The documents , which presumably had been vetted (and possibly added to) by the KGB, showed no evidence that Stalin or Communist party officials had burnt the Reichstag. They did, however, contain evidence showing that the Nazis had been preparing to arrest Communists before the fire. In addition, there was one intriguing report suggesting that the fire had been set by the Nazis themselves. It described a Berlin prison guard telling police investigators that Adolf Rall, a prisoner arrested for theft, had been overheard bragging to other prisoners that he had been part of a Nazi squad that entered the Reichstag through a tunnel and sprinkled flammable liquid inside the building. German investigators were unable to confirm this story. No record of Rall’s interrogation by the Gestapo was ever found and Rall himself had been murdered on the outskirts of Berlin in November 1933 (while the trial was still in progress). So the lead was a literal dead end. In any case, since both the Gestapo and KGB had custody of an archive, and neither agency was above with tampering with documents, the evidentiary value of the documents is at least questionable.
As a result, little more is known seven decades later about one of the most political explosive crimes of the twentieth century. Indeed, all that is known for certain that the Reichstag was deliberately destroyed. Whether a lone arsonist or a conspiracy, the resulting conflagration forever changed history.