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



[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.


Who is to be held responsible for the burning of the Reichstag?

Word Count: 1978
A. Plan of investigation

Who is to be held responsible for the burning down of the Reichstag? This question has been fodder for historians’ debate ever since the fire itself occurred on that fateful day; the 27th of February 1933. There have been many speculations into the issue of responsibility, specifically due to the vital role the fire played in establishing Hitler’s totalitarian rule over Germany. This coupled with the sheer incomprehensibility of the arson being the result of a single man’s efforts has led many to the conclusion that it is Hitler’s Nazi party to be held accountable. Evidence which is to be analyzed in this investigation includes primary sources such as the diary entries of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, as well as secondary sources such as Douglas Reed’s book, “The Burning of the Reichstag”. Other primary sources include a first hand account of the fire by Sefton Delmer, which, when analyzed thoroughly, is bound to shed light on the matter.

B. Summary of Evidence

This is what is known for sure. On the 27th of February 1933, at approximately 8:50 pm a postman passed by the Reichstag main building, noticing nothing out of the ordinary. A mere 15 minutes later, at 9: 05 a student outside the building noticed a man wielding a flaming object lurking about within. At 9:14 the fire alarm went off, and within ten minutes there were firemen inside the building attempting to put out the flames. At 9:27 there is a massive explosion within the building’s main chamber and the entire structure goes up in flames. Shortly after this, half naked Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe is found on the premises and arrested after making statements proclaiming that it is he who is responsible and that it was an act of protest against the government. It was not long after this happened when both Hitler and Goering arrived on the scene, which had by this time drawn quite a crowd. Herman Goering soon made a public statement that it was undoubtedly the communists who were to be held responsible. This position was reinforced by Hitler in his comment to Sefton Delmer, “…this be the work of the Communists. You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning.”[1] Be it an ambitious affirmation of will, or a glimpse into the eyes of conspiracy, Hitler’s statement proved to be right on the money. On the 28th of February, a mere day after the fire, article 48 of the German constitution was invoked by President Hindenburg thereby allowing Hitler to suspend civil liberties such as the freedom of the press , as well as the right of assembly and association. This set the stage for the passing of the Enabling Act on the 24th of March, which is considered by many historians to be the event which marks the official end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the age of Nazi Germany.


C. Evaluation of Sources

· The diary entries of Joseph Goebbels

- Hand-written by Joseph Goebbels himself between 1920 -1945
- Purpose cannot be that of a specific political nature, as Reichstag-related excerpts are taken from a work which Goebbels started writing during his time at Heidelberg University. Probably more of a personal log of the on-goings of his life.
- Valuable as it is a primary source, as it was never meant for publication. It was recovered from the soviet archives in the early nineties, so its authenticity is most likely true. It also coincides with other accounts of the night, namely Delmer and Hanfstaegel.
- Limitation could be that Goebbels may have anticipated its publication upon his death and decided to lie. It also does not give any insight regarding who set the Reichstag alight, merely showing that he as a person was not responsible. It is possible that other Nazis kept him out of the loop. Further more it must be taken into account that his journal was translated into English from German, so it is unknown whether or not the original piece’s true meaning is reflected in its translated counterpart.

· William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
- Written by William Shirer, first published in 1960
- Shirer originally started research for this book in 1925, however as time passed the purpose for this book changed and focused exclusively on the rise and fall of the Nazi regime.
- This book is extremely valuable as a source as Shirer was not only one of the very few historians who had access to the secret German archives; he was also present at the Nuremberg trials where the Nazi leaders were tried.
- Limitations of this book as a source may be that Shirer was biased in his writing, as he was American, let alone a foreign correspondent for the Chicago tribune, an exclusively American newspaper.[2]
D. Analysis

The evidence at hand not only tells a very interesting story concerning the atrocity that was the burning of the Reichstag fire, but too tells two very different contradictory accounts regarding whether or not the Nazis should be held responsible. As for specifically who carried out the work of starting the fire, there is practically a unanimous acknowledgement that it was indeed Van der Lubbe;[3] however whether or not he acted alone continues to be a point of debate for many a lethargic historian. Sefton Delmer, who was present the night of the fire, believed that van der Lubbe acted alone, and it was a ploy by the Nazis to make out that the culprits had been a gang of communists. Fritz Tobias too believed that the Dutchman acted alone, publishing a number of articles, as well as a book, attempting to prove this statement. Swiss historian Walter Hoffer on the other hand firmly believes not only that van der Lubbe didn’t act alone, but that he was aided in his act of arson by Nazi henchmen. Advocates of this theory claim that the rapid manner with which the building combusted could by no means have been initiated by a single perpetrator. As to whether or not the Nazis should be held responsible for the fire or not is too a point of debate. William Shirer, who was residing within Berlin at the time of the fire, writes in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: “…beyond reasonable doubt…it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.” He bases this conclusion on what he witnessed at the Nuremburg trials of 1945-46, namely Franz Halder’s statement that Herman Goering had confessed to being behind the whole thing while under the influence of alcohol at a Nazi party.
To claim that the political events which followed the fire should be used as causational evidence for Nazi involvement calls upon the assumption that the ends justifies the means, and is greatly criticized by historian David Irving. Irving holds the cases put forward by the Nazi minister of propaganda’s diary entries with the highest regard, calling them“…obviously genuine…”[4] He believes that Hitler and Goebbels were unaware of any plot to immolate the Reichstag in the name of any political ideal. However it must be taken into account that David Irving is considered by many to be a disgraced historian whose credibility must constantly be called into question[5]. Despite the logical fallacy of holding the end as justification of the means as proof for Nazi involvement, it is most definitely worth looking further into exactly what incentives the Nazis had regarding whether or not to burn down the Reichstag building. Literally a day after the fire president Hindenburg passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which not only suspended civil liberties and rights, but more importantly resulted in the ban of the Communist Party of Germany[6] – the Nazi party’s most adamant rival. This timing could not have been better for Hitler, as these events were literally days away from the March 5th Reichstag elections.[7] It was the fire which made it acceptable for Hitler to use terror in his campaigns[8], as well as a major source of Nazi propaganda which he and Goebbels milked for all it was worth. This in turn led to what is considered by many to be the most important event regarding Hitler’s rise to power – the passing of the enabling act on the 27th of March.[9] This is what the Nazis had wanted to achieve since their formation and was, apart from the formality of Hindenburg’s death, the pinnacle of Hitler’s power in Germany. Thus Shirer’s reasoning is not at all flawed, calling attention to the sheer improbability of such a turn of events being the result of mere coincidence. However, when he calls for what he witnessed at the Nuremberg trials to be considered proof, one may question whether or not he so readily believes what Franz Halder has to say of the fire, as opposed to Goering’s sentiment[10], only because it effortlessly falls in line with his own preconditioned personal beliefs.
A unique and different interpretation of events is put forth by Hans Mommsen, who suggests that it is possible for certain Nazi party members to have been behind it, yet felt it necessary to keep information of the plan from the rest of the Nazi party. His particular version of this idea holds Goebbels responsible, whereas Goering was completely oblivious. This is plausible as the large extent to which the fire was played out as Nazi propaganda does seem fit for credit to go to the Propaganda minister himself. However, this contradicts the point of view of all who consider the diary entries of Goebbels a legitimate and trustworthy source.

E. Conclusion

Throughout this investigation it has been quite apparent that, given the severely incompatible accounts of exactly what occurred that fateful February night in Berlin, a clear cut solution is beyond reach. Shirer’s account seems plausible when placed into the broad spectrum of events, however when it is placed under thorough analysis, the fallacies it relies on are brought to surface. Using as historical sources artifacts such as Goebbels diary entries has too proven problematic in light of their author not being around to clarify any discrepancies, allowing for interpretation and speculation to be made on both sides of the debate. With this in mind it is humbly acknowledged that the answer to the question of who must be held responsible for the burning of the Reichstag must invariably change for each and every person. This is because history is only as valuable as the minds interpreting and contemplating it.

F. List of Sources

· Shirer, W, 1960, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Martin Secker & Warburg, London

· Bahar, A, Kegel, W, 2001, The Reichstag Fire, 68 Years On , edition q, Berlin

· Van Der Lubbe’s statement to the police on the 3rd of March 1933

· Joseph Goebbels, My Part in Germany’s fight, 1940

· Delmer, S, 1961, Trail Sinister, Martin Secker & Warburg, London

· Joseph Goebbels diary entries

· Partridge, B, “The Red Peril”, Punch Magazine, 8th March 1933

· Martin Sommerfeldt’s account of the fire, written in 1956.

· “Confession” made by Karl Ernest, published by German communists in 1934

· Statements made by Goering and Halder at the Nuremberg War crimes trial in 1946

· Snyder, L, 1998, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire

· Reed, D, 1934, The Burning of the Reichstag, Hesperides Press, Berlin

· Mommsen, Hans "The Reichstag Fire and Its Political Consequences" pages 129-222 from Republic to Reich The Making of the Nazi Revolution edited by Hajo Holborn, New York: Pantheon Books, 1964

· Manvell, R, Frankel, H, 1974, The Hundred Days to Hitler, J. M. Dent, New York


[1] Sefton Delmer, Trail Sinister, pp. 185-200
[2] This bias is clear through Shirer’s constant referral to Goering as fat, Ribbentrop as vacuous, and Rosenberg as a befuddled dolt. With this Shirer has slipped into usage of the Ad Hominem argumentative fallacy.
[3] (1909 – 1934) An uneducated Dutch communist reactionary
[4] Article written by David Irving in 1994 entitled “Revelations from Goebbels' Diary: Bringing to Light Secrets of Hitler's Propaganda Minister”
[5] This is due to his public denial of the Holocaust, an act for which he was imprisoned in Austria during November 2005
[6] This officially took place on the 1st of March 1933
[7] The Nazis gained 44% of the vote in this election – not the majority they were hoping for, but it definitely made it easier to take control within the Reichstag.
[8] Such as Freikorps constantly patrolling the streets, discriminating and harassing any political opponents which crossed their path.
[9] Important as it gave Hitler the right to rule by decree; generally agreed upon as the end of the democratic Weimar republic.
[10] Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials stated “I had no reason or motive for setting fire to the Reichstag.”



Question: Did Van der Lubbe act alone when setting the fire of the Reichstag in 1933?


Section 1: Identification and evaluation of sources (suggested 500 words)

Source A: The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Truth by Fritz Tobias, published in Germany under the title Der Reichstagsbrand 1964 in Der spiegel.
 Fritz Tobias was a West German SPD public servant[1] and therefore has a better awareness of how the German political system worked. On the other hand, as Tobias is not a recent historian, his knowledge could be outdated as more evidence about the fire has now been found from achieves he didn’t have access to before [2]. The purpose of this book is to show that the fire of the Reichstag was not beyond the capacity of a single man suggesting that the Nazis were not involved in the incident. Regarding to its content, the book provides a detailed description of Van der Lubbe’s character and psychological behavior[3], which helps the reader get an in- depth portrayal of the main suspect.  AJP Taylor describes Tobias as ‘the first to look at this evidence with an impartial eye’[4] due to the meticulous research that his examination involves.  However, according to the Independent Socialist magazine[5] , Tobias dismissed forensic evidence of extensive fire damage from multiple points of origin’ disregarding  the proof found against his argument like the testimony of fire experts who claimed the necessity of multiple arsonists to set the fire. Additionally, as the review states, ‘Tobias was never qualified as a lawyer or a historian’ and was found to have served in Nazi occupations forces in Italy.  Suggesting that his investigation could have been influenced by his desire to free the Nazis from being involved in the fire. More recently, The Telegraph suggested that ‘After poring over 50,000 pages of unexamined documents’[6] four historians had concluded that Der Spiegel was a Nazi conspiracy by ‘Nazi sympathizers’ who wanted to protect the offenders from trial. Fritz Tobias responded to such accusations by stating: "I was born into a Social Democratic household and I’m the last person to want to exculpate Hitler and his consorts[7]."
Source B: The Burning of the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery by Benjamin Carter Hett, 2014.

 Benjamin Carter, formal trial lawyer and professor of history [8], manages to examine the issue from a legal perspective and view the event as a reliable historian informed on the topic. The date of the publication of this book, strengths its value as it indicates that benefiting from his hindsight, Carter was able to base his study on years of scholarly research from German federal archives as well as interviews with the few remaining eyewitnesses to the event. This book provides detailed maps showing Van der Lubbe’s path through the building as well as witnesses’ accounts to reconstruct each minute before and during the fire. In one of his interviews[9], Hett states that his meticulous research was based on his access to some of the files that were moved to East Berlin in 1980 and made available to researchers after the fall of the wall;[10]. The burning of the Reichstag provides context, puts the event in perspective and looks at the implications the fire had for Germany and the Nazi party. The purpose of this book is to explain that it was the Nazis who set the fire in order to seize dictatorial power. The Independent argues that it was Hett’s forensically examined evidence, which gave him the chance to provide such a reasonable explanation to the fire[11]. However, Hett recognizes that although his book gives strong arguments as to why Van der Lubbe couldn’t have acted alone and how the fire was beneficial to the Nazis,  his research has however failed to prove who really did start the fire[12]. In addition to this, Richard J. Evans himself states that  ‘Hett passes over evidence that goes against his argument’ as well as the fact that the author  ‘provides evidence but doesn’t provide strong links’[13].

Section 2: Investigation (suggested 1300 words)

This investigation will explore the question: Did Van der Lubbe act alone when setting the fire of the Reichstag in 1933? The focus of this essay is to examine whether the fire of the Reichstag was really part of a communist conspiracy, set up by only Marinus Van der Lubbe or instead a well elaborated plan by the Nazis to consolidate their power.

The night of February the 27th of 1933 Hitler was attending dinner at Goebbels’s residence. Shortly after nine o'clock that day, the alarm went on; the Reichstag building was on fire[14], just 6 days before Germany’s general elections. Hitler’s dinner was interrupted by a call from Dr. Hanfstaengel that said that 23-year-old Marinus Van der Lubbe (Dutch Communist) was caught in the scene of the crime in possession of flammable material; he had previous criminal records for arson. Van der Lubbe was then questioned by the police until he admitted that he had started the fire; although denied several times it was part of a communist conspiracy[15]. On the following day, Hindenburg promulgated an emergency decree ‘for the protection of the People and the State’[16]. Knowing the true motives behind the fire is crucial to our understanding today of the time as the Reichstag fire was a pivotal moment in German history.

The standard view to this case is that Van der Lubbe was a patsy; who was easily manipulated and influenced by the Nazis to set the fire. Hett tells us in his book that Van der Lubbe had “poor eyesight as a result of an industrial accident where both of his eyes were damaged”[17]. He later on explains how due to this incident Marinus was unable to work; thus impossible for him to have set the fire on his own.  Despite being 80% blind, , Van der Lubbe was also  found to be mentally handicapped during his testimony [18]. This statement was then supported by Van der Lubbe’s behavior during the trial where he was asked several times to stand up and explain the reason behind his energetic laughter to the audience, which was repeatedly causing great confusion among the observers who accused Van der Lubbe of being a lunatic[19]. The author firmly argues that chemists and engineers have stated that one person acting alone and possessing only matches could not have set the fire that destroyed the Plenary Chamber in such a short period of time[20]. Just a few days before the federal elections the timing of the fire seemed too convenient for the Nazi party; Hitler was fast to jump into conclusions and state that the fire was part of a communist plot in order to allow him to target communists.  In addition to this, Franz Halder stated that during Hitler’s birthday celebration in 1942, he had heard Herman Göring interrupting a conversation stating that the only one who really knew about the Reichstag was him , for he had set fire to it[21].  Lastly, this view is supported by an extract from  The life and death of Adolf Hitler’ by James Cross Giblin  who explains how Göring refused to approve the official police report with Van der Lubbe’s statement explaining how he had started the fire.[22] Instead, Giblin states how Göring wrote a second revised report claiming that the Dutch communist had set the fire with the help of various communist delegates as  a sign of a communist rebellion.

However, this view is questioned by Van der Lubbe’s testimony from 1933 where he stated “I can only repeat that I set fire to the Reichstag all by myself. There is nothing complicated about this fire. What was made of it may be complicated, but the fire itself was very simple” (See section 3 of the appendix). The first thoughts after the incident indicated that Van der Lubbe had broken in a second-floor window and burnt the Reichstag in around 15 minutes.[23]. Richard J. Evans, argues that although it is true that Van der Lubbe had poor eyesight, he was ‘however not so blind as to fail to recognize large pieces of furniture and other obstacles in his passage through the building’[24].  Another example, Fritz Tobias , who describes Van der Lubbe as  “quick-witted, ingenious, and physically active”[25] contradicting Hett’s idea of Van der Lubbe’s physical issues being the ones responsible for his incapability of setting the fire on his own. On the surface the fire of the Reichstag was no great mystery: a young man was caught in the possession of flammable material; the crime was solved. However, the Nazis didn’t like this idea, and were determined on the fact that Marinus had been helped by four other communists: Erns Torgler, Georigi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vasil Tanev[26]. The prosecution failed however to prove this and all four of them were acquitted. AJP Taylor agrees  with this view by stating that ‘most likely fact is that Van der Lubbe acted alone and was exactly what he seemed: “a confused insignificant man, desperate for a place”.[27]
The strongest point in Herr Tobias’s book is said to be the demonstration that the use of the famous tunnel from Göering’s house to the Reichstag was just an ‘ingenious communist speculation’[28]. On the other hand, in the Brown Book, published by the Communist activist Willi Münzenberg, there was enough evidence presented arguing that SA officers had accessed the Reichstag via the tunnel connected to Göering’s basement and started the fire[29]. It is important to mention here that the night of the fire Göering and Hitler were having dinner together at Göering’s apartment[30]. In his book, Carter states ‘The following day, a new draft now called Decree for the protection of the German people was set. This draft allowed the banning (..) of political meetings and political associations if they posed a threat to public security. But here again, Hitler demonstrated his sense of timing and political calculations”[31]. From Hett’s perspective, the fire happened so close to the federal election that it could not have been just a mere coincidence[32]; as he states, it was clearly done by the Nazis, who wanted to benefit politically from the event by pointing their fingers to both the Communists and Social Democrats. ‘Now the Red pest is being thoroughly rooted out.”[33] (Goebbels) after communists were arrested by the SA[34]. However, as Tobias explains in his book, the Nazis could not have been involved in the fire as by allowing Van der Lubbe to stand trial,  the Nazis already proved their innocence; if the Dutch communist had been in fact  associated with them in any way, the Nazis would have gotten rid of him before the police could have had  the chance to question him.[35]
 After analyzing the sources presented, it seems that Van der Lubbe could have set the fire alone. Although the Nazis had indeed, strong motives to start the fire themselves, as AJP Taylor states ‘If they in fact started the fire, why did they so strikingly fail to provide any evidence against the Communists or even that Van der Lubbe had accomplices?[36].  Hitler saw the opportunity to achieve absolute majority and approve the emergency decree but also to use the fire as a pretext to arrest thousands of communists that would have otherwise disrupted his political agenda.  The Reichstag fire presented Hitler with the perfect opportunity to blame the Communists in in ‘one great big Bolshevik plot’; however, no evidence can nowadays prove that they were involved in the fire, let alone set it them themselves and then blame Van der Lubbe for it; leaving the Reichstag fire as the title of Hett’s book indicates ‘An enduring mystery’.


Section 3: Reflection (suggested 400 words)

This investigation allowed me to gain a better understanding about the different methods used by historians to understand a specific event in history and the meticulous research that has to be done in order to come up with a balance argument. In addition to this, the purpose of this essay has allowed me to gain an insight into the difficulties historians face when gathering information to make a clear statement. For example, I came to appreciate the difficulty of gaining accurate historical knowledge from primary sources by using the example of Van der Lubbe’s testimony. This is so, because although it is a source of the time and for that very valuable as it shows how things were in 1933, it is very difficult to evaluate the reliability of the suspect’s statement due to the conditions he was interviewed in; such as the fact that during his testimony, he was found to be mentally handicapped.  Another challenge I faced during my investigation was the fact that mostly all the information regarding the Leipzig trials and Van der Lubbe’s statement was in German; which make me come to the realization of how difficult it must be for a historian to deal with texts written in another language that have not yet been translated.
Throughout the process of writing this essay, I also noticed how, when dealing with incidents that occurred many years ago, it is extremely difficult to reconstruct the events and for that, historians must look at a wide range of sources that deal with more than one perspective to be able to accurately represent the nature of the event being studied such police and witnesses’ reports.
 I questioned myself to what extent can a historian, based on the sources analyzed, make an objective argument regarding the event studied. For this, I carefully looked at the biases of each source and traced back to what for me is most essential when dealing with historical events:  the values and limitations of the sources. Therefore, I found it extremely challenging to come up with a conclusion. However, I believe this essay has provided me with a valuable insight into the complications historians have to face in order to understand the importance of sources when forming a rational opinion.


Section 3:

·      Some of the questions from the testimony by Marinus von der Lubbe

“I had to do something myself. I considered arson a suitable method. I did not wish to harm private people but something belonging to the system itself. I decided on the Reichstag. As to the question of whether I acted alone, I declare emphatically that this was the case.

“I can only repeat that I set fire to the Reichstag all by myself. There is nothing complicated about this fire. It has quite a simple explanation. What was made of it may be complicated, but the fire itself was very simple.”

During his testimony, Van der Lubbe stated that he had set the fire with the aid of four firelighters[37].


Section 4: Bibliography (Harvard citation)

Brice, G. (2014) Homepage of Benjamin Hett. Available at: http://urban.hunter.cuny.edu/~hett/ (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Mason, E. (2014) Was the burning of the Reichstag the Nazis’ first crime? Available at: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/was-burning-reichstag-nazis-first-crime (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

O’ Grady, S. (2014) The Independent - Reviews.

E. Nutter, T. (2014) Burning The Reichstag by Benjamin Carter Hett.

J. Evans, R. (2014) The Conspiracists.

LLC, S. (2007) ‘Skepticism undermined by an insufficient knowledge of history’, 9 May. Available at: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/05/09/skepticism-undermined-by-insufficient-kn-1/(Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Shirer, W.L. (1991) The rise and fall of the Third Reich: A history of Nazi Germany. London: Arrow Books.

Simkin, J. (1997) Fritz Tobias. Available at: http://spartacus-educational.com/Fritz_Tobias.htm(Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Taylor, A.J.P. (1964) Introduction by A. J. P. Taylor- The Reichstag Fire, Fritz Tobias.

Mage, J. and Tigar, M.E. (2009) ‘The Reichstag fire trial, 1933–2008: The production of law and history by Michael E. Tigar’, The Reichstag Fire Trial, 1933-2008: The Production of Law and History, Volume 60(Issue 10 (March)).

Paterson, T. (2001) Historians find ‘proof’ that Nazis burnt Reichstag. Available at:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/1310995/Historians-find-proof-that-Nazis-burnt-Reichstag.html(Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Wright, J. and Chandler, M. (2001) Modern world history for Edexel A: Core student book. 2 (pg.80) edn. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Books - Secondary Division.

Taylor, A.J.P. (1960) ‘Who burnt the Reichstag? The story of a legend’, History Today, Volume 10(Issue 8).

Hett, B.C. (2014) Burning the Reichstag: An investigation into the Third Reich’s enduring mystery. (pg. 89) edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giblin, J. (2002) The life and death of Adolf Hitler. (Pg.75) edn. New York: Clarion Books.

Evans, R.J. (2005) The coming of the Third Reich. (Pg.518–519) edn. New York: The Penguin Press.

Tobias, F. (1964) The Reichstag Fire. Germany: Putnam.

Chary, F.B. (2011) The history of Bulgaria. (Pg.74) edn. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Pub. Group.

Worthington, D. (2015) The anniversary of the Reichstag fire. Available at: http://www.newhistorian.com/anniversary-reichstag-fire/3085/ (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Hett, B.C. (2014) Burning the Reichstag: An investigation into the Third Reich’s enduring mystery. (pg. 71) edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meyer, H.C. (1973) Germany from Empire to Ruin, 1913–1945. 1st (Pg.208) edn. UK: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Tobias, F. (1964) The Reichstag Fire. Germany: Putnam( Pg.72).

Durham, R.B. (2014) False flags, covert operations, & propaganda. (Pg.159) edn. United States: Lulu.com.

Rothman, L. (2015) Who started the Reichstag fire? Available at: http://time.com/3717003/reichstag-fire-1933/(Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Wiener, L. (1917) Contributions toward a history of Arabico-Gothic culture. Vol.I edn. Germany: New York, The Neale publishing company.

Rabinbach, A. (2007) Staging Antifascism: The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror. Available at: http://www.unite.it/UniTE/Engine/RAServeFile.php/f/File_Prof/CARLI_702/rabinbach-Reichstag.pdf(Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Trueman, C.N. (2016) The Reichstag fire of 1933. Available at: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/nazi-germany/the-reichstag-fire-of-1933/(Accessed: 16 October 2016).

  [1]   (Durham, 2014)     [2]  (LLC, 2007)     [3]  (Tobias, 1964)     [4] (Taylor, 1964)     [5](Mage and Tigar, 2009)     [6] (Paterson, 2001)     [7] (Paterson, 2001)      [8]  (Brice, 2014)     [9]  (Mason, 2014)     [10]  (Mason, 2014)     [11] (O’ Grady, 2014)     [12] (E. Nutter, 2014)     [13]  (J. Evans, 2014)     [14] (Simkin, 1997)     [15] (Trueman, 2016)     [16] (Taylor, 1960)     [17]  (Hett, 2014) [18]  (Wright and Chandler, 2001)  [19] (Wiener, 1917)     [20]  (Mason, 2014)     [21] (Shrirer,1991)     [22] (Giblin, 2002)     [23] (Rothman, 2015)     [24]  (Evans, 2014)     [25]  (Tobias, 1964) [26]   (Chary, 2011)  [27]  (Taylor, 1964)     [28] (Tobias, 1964)     [29]  (Rabinbach, 2007)     [30] (Worthington, 2015) [31] (Hett, 2014)  [32] (E. Nutter, 2014) [33]  (Meyer, 1973)  [34] (Meyer, 1973)     [35]  (Tobias, 1964)     [36] (Taylor, 1964)  [37] (Taylor, 1960)