Who is responsible for setting fire to the Reichstag?

IBDP Internal Assessment

A. Plan of the investigation

The investigation assesses the crime of the Reichstag Fire on February 27th in 1933.[1] In order to examine and conclude who is to be held responsible for the fire, the investigation will briefly look at the essential role the fire played in Hitler’s rise to power and the consequences such as the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act leading to an authoritarian state.[2] Additionally the origin of the fire and the reaction of the government will be considered to evaluate the responsibility of the Reichstag Fire. Evidence, which is to be analyzed includes primary sources such as Van Der Lubbe’s statement to the police, confessing his crime and German secondary sources such as “The Reichstag Fire” by Tobias Fritz and “Der Reichstagsbrand: die Karriere eines Kriminalfalls” by Sven Felix Kellerhoff, which confirm Marinus van der Lubbe’s sole responsibility based on his already existing criminal record.[3] Furthermore to gain a different perspective and to analyze primary evidence from the 1930’s, which was put together by William Shirer, an American journalist who was working in Germany at the time of the Reichstag Fire[4] in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. In contrast to Kellerhof, he puts the blame on the Nazis due to an underground passage to the Reichstag.[5] Nevertheless the search for the arsonist remains therefore the question that arises is, who is to blame for the burning of the Reichstag?

Word count: 235

B. Summary of Evidence

On February 27th 1933 the Reichstag in Berlin was set ablaze.[6] This occurred while it was known that Hitler attended a dinner at Goebbels’s residence[7], from which “an underground passage” connected to the Reichstag was built[8]. Their meal was interrupted by an important  telephone call from Dr. Hanfstaengel stating that the Reichstag was on fire.[9] Following this message Hitler and Goebbels immediately made their way to the crime scene. Meanwhile President Hindenburg and the vice-chancellor Von Papen have also received the same notification and raced to the burning of the Reichstag straight away. [10]

The “night watchman Rudolf Scholz had started his customary round of inspection”[11] after the last meeting had taken place in the Reichstag. “At 20:30 he passed the Session Chamber” reassuring himself “that everything was in order”.[12]Additionally the Reichstag Postman, Willi Ott, who was also in the building around that time “had not noticed anything suspicious” either.[13] He was the last person to leave the Reichstag at about 20:55.[14] Shortly after 21:00, the theology student Hans Flöter passed by the southwestern side of the Reichstag on his way home from the State Library. A sound of breaking glass, which came from the Reichstag building, startled him. He immediately alerted the main staff sergeant Karl Buwert, claiming that he saw a figure holding a burning object.[15] At 21:10 another Student, who also claimed to have seen someone, perhaps even more than one person, notified the Brandenburg Gate Guard Station about the fire.[16] At 21:14 the first fire truck arrived.[17] Right after Lieutenant Lateit peeked into the Chamber of the Reichstag, he was convinced that only one person could not have started so many individual fires.[18] The right-winged political leaders where confident that the arsonist was a Communist.[19] This accusation was confirmed initially when  “the police arrested a young Dutch Communist, van der Lubbe, who was found in the deserted building in circumstances which left little doubt that he was responsible.”[20] It was 21:27. During van der Lubbe’s interrogation, the young man confessed that: “something absolutely had to be done in protest against this system. I considered arson a suitable method.”[21] Although Lubbe was blamed for the arson, some believe the Nazis exploited the fire to their advantage as they introduced an Emergency decree to suspend civil rights.[22] Despite this decree the Nazis failed to get a majority in the March Election.[23] The Enabling act on March 5th in 1933 was introduced, to effectively dissolve the Reichstag and ban all Communist parties.[24]

Word count: 415
C. Evaluation of sources

Kellerhof, Sven Felix. "Die Brandstiftung." Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines

     Kriminalfalls. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008. Print.

This source was written by a German journalist in 2008[25],providing a detailed analysis of the Reichstag Fire. Regarding his academics, he studied modern and ancient history, media law and journalism.[26] As the renowned historian Hans Mommsen explains in the preface, Kellerhof aims to analyze the origins as well as the procedure of the fire, the arsonist’s confession and the consequences of this crime in order to support his argument of the sole perpetration of Marinus van der Lubbe.[27] The source is valuable because the author gives the reader a reliable representation of events[28]in favor of Marinus van der Lubbe being solely responsible for the fire. The source is also valuable because as a journalist, Kellerhof had the access to a variety of German files such as archives and newspapers from 1933 to evidence that the Dutchman was the only arsonist. Since the source was written in 2008, more evidence and research opportunities were available for the journalist. Additionally well-known historians such as Fritz Tobias and Hans Mommsen support his theory and according to Mommsen he examines the events in an unbiased manner.[29] However this source also has limitations because the Kellerhof based his work on the historian Fritz Tobias, who according to Hans Schneider, active for the Institute for Contemporary History is known for manipulating his evidence to prove his point of Marinus van der Lubbe acting alone.[30] This portrays itself as one of the major limitations of the source as it is to a significant extent based on false information, meaning that the source includes personal theories and shortened quotes.[31]

Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third    
     Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Print.
This source was written by an American journalist and first published in 1960, with the purpose of providing a historical interpretation and an analysis of the Third Reich[32], including Hitler’s origins and early life, rise to and consolidation of power and the course of the second world war.[33]  The source is valuable because the author of the book lived and worked as a reporter during the Third Reich in Germany and therefore he has witnessed the former situation.[34] As a journalist located in Germany between 1934 and 1940 Shirer had the access to a range of secret archives and the opportunity to interview political or military leaders of that time.[35] Even though the title of the work indicates that the analysis of the Third Reich is rather general than specifically focused on the Reichstag Fire it is valuable because the work sets the Reichstag Fire into context. In addition Shirer backs up his facts with the evidence and the testimony of the Nuremberg trials, numerous footnotes and thorough research, making the source valuable with regard to the topic of the Reichstag Fire.[36] However the source is limited, as Shirer was a journalist and not an academic historian, he may have lacked in skills to produce a detailed account based on the evidence he has used. This source may also be slightly out of date, as more recent research might have made his interpretation of the Third Reich less relevant.

 Word Count: 503


D. Analysis

It is important to consider the context of the burning of the Reichstag, as it catalyzed several reactions such as the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Enabling Act and ultimately Hitler’s rise to power, giving rise to the question of who was responsible for this crime. There are three main arguments, which are debated until today; these include the involvement of the Nazis, the sole guilt of Marinus van der Lubbe and whether or whether not the crime had been a communist plot.

The Nazi involvement in the Reichstag Fire is supported by the fact that the Nazis built an underground passage to the Reichstag in which storm troopers dispersed “gasoline and self-igniting chemicals”[37] on the night of the arson under the order of the S.A leader Karl Ernst. Even though the locksmith Herr Wingurth declared that the tunnel into the Reichstag had many locked doors, which where found to be closed after the fire, one must know that the Nazis have asked him to advocate their innocence at the Nuremberg Trials.[38] Even the official of the Prussian Ministry testified at the Nuremberg trials that Goebbels had the initial idea of burning down the Reichstag.[39] Additionally General Franz Halder witnessed Goering shouting "The only one who really knows about the Reichstag is I, because I set it on fire!"[40] However Goering denied his participation in the Fire at the Nuremberg Trials. It seems most reasonable blaming the Nazis for the burning of the Reichstag as according to Seftan Delmer “the fire was started by the Nazis, who used the incident as a pretext to outlaw political opposition and impose dictatorship.”[41] 


Furthermore Shirer, who worked as a reporter during the Third Reich in Germany and had access to firsthand information,[42] argues that Van der Lubbe was a “godsend to the Nazis.”[43] He was used as a scapegoat by the Nazis and “encouraged to try to set the Reichstag on fire.”[44] At the trial at Leipzig enough evidence suggested that van der Lubbe “did not possess the means to set so vast a building on fire so quickly.”[45] The testimony of experts at the trial shows that more than one person must have set the fire, as such a widespread fire would have required large quantities of chemicals and gasoline. It was therefore obvious “that one man could not have carried them into the building alone.”[46]

 However the van der Lubbe, who already had a criminal record[47], has attempted a several times earlier to arson different buildings [48] in order to protest against the German government.  These failures could have encouraged the 24-year old Communist to aim other sites such as in this case the Reichstag. Additionally van der Lubbe was caught with “flammable materials”, “sweating” and “breathing heavily” during his interrogation as if he just came from the crime scene.[49] Lubbe’s behavior during his interrogation and his items he was carrying with him clearly show that he had to do something with the Fire. Why otherwise would he have carried around flammable materials on that particular day? Furthermore Kellerhof supports the theory of van der Lubbe being solely responsible for the fire as an own initiative to protest against the German system.[50] He claims that a few flammable materials would have been enough to conduct the fire in the Reichstag alone, as the breaking of the glass of the dome of the Reichstag encouraged the contact between fire and oxygen, spreading the fire even more.[51] This is also supported by  Dr. Walter Zirpnis claiming at the Nuremberg trials that van der Lubbe acted by himself[52], even though Ernst Togler, Dimitroff, Popov and Tanev gave themselves up to the police. They only did this as a trigger to the police’s announcement to hang Marinus van der Lubbe.[53]

Word count: 625

E. Conclusion

The Nazi Party had strong motives to set the Reichstag on fire because this event allowed them to arrest more than 4000 communists and this crime occurred coincidentally right before the Reichstag elections.[54] Additionally Nazi generals and members themselves declared several times that they were involved in this crime act, however at the Nuremberg trials they denied what they have said. This change in statements questions the reliability of the declarations the Nazis made at court. After examining different sources, I think Shirer’s argument that the Nazis were involved in the fire is the most reasonable as this even gave Hitler the power of a dictator. Furthermore it seems plausible that Marinus van der Lubbe was used a scapegoat by the Nazis to cover up their guilt.[55] Although due to the growing Bolshevik revolution it could have been possible for the Reichstag Fire to have been a plot organized by the KPD, the German Communist Party or Lubbe acting alone, the Nazis had the most plausible intentions in setting the fire.


Word count: 171


F. Sources

Bahar, Alexander, and Wilfried Kugel. Der Reichstagsbrand: Wie Geschichte Gemacht Wird. Berlin: n.p., 2011. Print.

Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Print.

Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Fergusson, Gilbert. A Blueprint for Dictatorship: Hitler's Enabling Law of March 1933. Vol.     
     40. [S.l.]: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1964. Print.

Giblin, James. "11. One Nation, One Party, One Führer." The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler.
     New York: Clarion, 2002. Print.

Gisevius, Hans Bernd, and Richard Winston. To the Bitter End. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
     1947. Print.

Irving, David John Cawdell. Göring: A Biography. New York: Morrow, 1989. Print.

Kellerhof, Sven Felix. "Die Brandstiftung." Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines
     Kriminalfalls. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008. Print.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.


Lewis, Jon E. The Mammoth Book of How It Happened. New York: Carrol & Graf, 2006.  
     Print.

Manvell, Roger, and Heinrich Fraenkel. Doctor Goebbels, His Life and Death. London:
     Heinemann, 1960. Print.

Rosenfeld, Gavriel D. "The Reception of William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third
     Reich in the United States and West Germany,1960-62." UCSB Department of History.    
     The Regents of the University of California, n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.

Schneider, Hans, and Dieter Deiseroth. Neues Vom Reichstagsbrand?: Eine Dokumentation :
     Ein Versäumnis Der Deutschen Geschichtsschreibung. Berlin: BWV Berliner Wiss.-Verl.,
     2004. Print.

Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third
     Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Print.

Stackelberg, Roderick, and Sally Anne. Winkle. The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An
     Anthology of Texts. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

The Enabling Act of 23 March 1933. N.p.: Administration of the German Bundestag, Mar.  
     2006. PDF.

Tobias, Fritz. "The Criminal Case." The Reichstag Fire. New York: Putnam, 1964.Print.

Ottaway, Susan. Hitler's Traitors. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: L. Cooper, 2003. Print.

Welch, David. Hitler. London: UCL, 1998. Print.



[1] Welch, David. Hitler. London: UCL, 1998. 40. Print.
[2] The Enabling Act of 23 March 1933. N.p.: Administration of the German Bundestag, Mar. 2006. PDF.
[3] Mommsen, Hans. "Vorwort." Foreword. Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines Kriminalfalls. By Sven Felix Kellerhof. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008. 7-11. Print.
[4] Shirer, William L. Foreword. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Vii-Xi. Print.
[5] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 269. Print.
[6] Giblin, James. "11. One Nation, One Party, One Führer." The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler. New York: Clarion, 2002. 73-82. Print.
[7] Irving, David John Cawdell. "The Big Lie." Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. London: Focal Point, 1996. 294. Print.
[8] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 269. Print.
[9] Manvell, Roger, and Heinrich Fraenkel. Doctor Goebbels, His Life and Death. London: Heinemann, 1960. 119. Print.
[10] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 267-268. Print.
[11] Tobias, Fritz. "The Criminal Case." The Reichstag Fire. New York: Putnam, 1964. 5. Print.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., pg.6
[14] Ibid., pg.6-7
[15] Kellerhof, Sven Felix. "Die Brandstiftung." Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines Kriminalfalls. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008. 11-22. Print.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 458. Print.
[20] Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. 262. Print.
[21] Ottaway, Susan. Hitler's Traitors. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: L. Cooper, 2003. 25. Print.
[22] Stackelberg, Roderick, and Sally Anne. Winkle. The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts. London: Routledge, 2002. 134. Print.
[23] Fergusson, Gilbert. A Blueprint for Dictatorship: Hitler's Enabling Law of March 1933. Vol. 40. [S.l.]: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1964. 258. Print.
[24] Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. 271. Print.
[25] Kellerhof, Sven Felix. "Die Brandstiftung." Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines Kriminalfalls. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008. 160. Print.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Mommsen, Hans. "Vorwort." Foreword. Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines Kriminalfalls. By Sven Felix Kellerhof. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008. 7-11. Print.
[28] Ibid., 159
[29] Ibid., 10
[30] Schneider, Hans, and Dieter Deiseroth. Neues Vom Reichstagsbrand?: Eine Dokumentation : Ein Versäumnis Der Deutschen Geschichtsschreibung. Berlin: BWV Berliner Wiss.-Verl., 2004. Print.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Rosenfeld, Gavriel D. "The Reception of William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the United States and West Germany,1960-62." UCSB Department of History. The Regents of the University of California, n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.
[33] Evans, Richard J. Preface. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. N. pag. Print.
[34] Shirer, William L. Foreword. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Vii-Xi. Print.
[35] Evans, Richard J. Preface. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. N. pag. Print.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 269. Print.
[38] Tobias, Fritz. "The Criminal Case." The Reichstag Fire. New York: Putnam, 1964. 27. Print.
[39] Gisevius, Hans Bernd, and Richard Winston. To the Bitter End. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Print.
[40] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 171. Print.
[41] Seftan Delmer’s article in the Daily Express on February 23rd, 1933
Lewis, Jon E. The Mammoth Book of How It Happened. New York: Carrol & Graf, 2006. 339. Print.
[42] Shirer, William L. Foreword. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Vii-Xi. Print.
[43] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 269. Print.
[44] Ibid., 269-270
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Tobias, Fritz. "The Criminal Case." The Reichstag Fire. New York: Putnam, 1964. 13. Print.
[48] Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 457. Print.
[49] Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. 330. Print.
[50] Mommsen, Hans. "Vorwort." Foreword. Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines Kriminalfalls. By Sven Felix Kellerhof. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008. 7-11. Print.
[51] Kellerhof, Sven Felix. "Die Brandstiftung." Der Reichstagsbrand Die Karriere Eines   Kriminalfalls. Berlin-Brandenburg: Be.bra Verlag GmbH, 2008.19.Print.
[52] Tobias, Fritz. "The Criminal Case." The Reichstag Fire. New York: Putnam, 1964. 20. Print.
[53] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 270. Print.
[54] Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. 216.Print.
[55] Shirer, William L. "The Nazification of Germany:1933-34." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. 269-270. Print.