Oxford University Press, £19.99. Order at the discounted price of £15.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Burning the Reichstag by Benjamin Carter Hett, book review

 

Who set fire to the Reichstag on or around 9.16pm on 27 February 1933? Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for a month, a minority partner in a coalition dominated by aristocratic mates of the venerated President Hindenburg.

These men were unlikely simply to hand the Nazis absolute power. The Nazis needed a crisis for that. The fire gave Hitler his chance – it was claimed to be the start of a Communist revolution. He got Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree that suspended every human right in the Weimar constitution: this was, in effect, the legal basis of the Third Reich.

So as an event that helped establish the most violently, bestially destructive regime in human history, the fire matters. In its way, though much more momentously, it is a German counterpart to the JFK assassination in America – a national trauma that endless conspiracy theories and bitter controversies about a 'sole culprit', driven by trauma.

There are three competing explanations for the fire, forensically examined by lawyer-historian Benjamin Carter Hett in Burning the Reichstag. The easiest to dismiss is the Nazis' (possibly sincere) claim  that a Communist uprising was imminent. This was nonsense. First, Stalin, leader of world Bolshevism, had no interest in it, wanting to cosy up to Germany even under Hitler (a misapprehension that was to persist until Barbarossa in 1941). Second, Stalin’s local  representatives clung pathetically to the Marxist notion that they could just sit back and wait for their revolution.

      True, the only person definitively linked to the fire,  its self-confessed principal arsonist, Marinus van der Lubbe, did have a Communist past in his native Holland. However, in his confused testimonies he also said he'd been with Nazis before the fire, had taken his firelighters into the German parliament for “personal” reasons and that it was a protest on behalf of the working class.  Was Lubbe, as confused in his politics as Lee Harvey Oswald, the 'sole culprit'? Was he a Communist dupe? Or a Nazi dupe?

A number of respectable historians in Germany have suggested that he acted alone. This suggestion that the the Nazis did not in fact stage the thing is offensive to many, but it need not be. If it was a random event, though fortuitously timed days before crucial elections, that doesn't justify what they did immediately after, let alone the Holocaust or their other crimes against humanity.  The Nazis would have concocted another crisis - a staged attempt on Hitler's life being the likeliest scam - to do what they wanted. Certainly, no-one thinks that the German Communist MP Ernst Torgler or the three Bulgarian comintern officials, also arraigned, were guilty. All were acquitted even in this show trial. Lubbe alone was beheaded.

Hett raises again the biggest problem with the “sole culprit” theory; how it was that Lubbe managed to get the vast solid oak debating chamber fully combusted in about ten minutes. There remains no adequate explanation. Despite the efforts of Mr Hett and many others, the embers of the Reichstag fire still glow.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week