The Reichstag Fire of 1933: The key to Dictatorship?

On the 27th of February, 1933, the German parliament building (The Reichstag) was burnt down in an arson attack. The fire caused around $1 million worth of damages to the building before it was able to be dealt with, and a young Dutchman was arrested at the scene.[1] He was Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch labourer believed to have communist sympathies, who reportedly confessed to starting the fire when arrested.[2] This is speculated amongst historians. For some, Marinus acted alone through genuine political motivation and Adolf Hitler decided to capitalise on the event in order to claim a much wider communist plan for a violent revolution.[3] Others believe that the Nazi Party paid van der Lubbe and were directly involved in the event, with the promise of a pardon for Marinus after the event, once their support and political position grew.[4] This need to pin the event on a specific group, in this case the bitterly hated and feared Communists, likely stemmed from the fact Hitler failed to win an overall majority in 1933. He had secured the Chancellorship, but this was not enough for him. If public opinion was turned against communism enough, perhaps these votes would shift to the Nazi Party and provide Hitler with the majority he desired.

Regardless of the political motivations of the attack, those involved, or the Nazi Party involvement, enough had been said to persuade President Paul von Hindenburg that the Communists were planning to overthrow the German establishment and something needed to be done. So, just one day after the fire, The Reichstag Fire Decree (or the Decree for the Protection of the People and State) was passed. This suspended the right to assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and removed restraints on police investigations.[5] It also allowed for the Nazis to arrest and incarcerate political opponents without specific charge, dissolve political organizations and confiscate private property.[6] Whilst these measures were limiting and controlling enough, when considered that they were paired with powers already passed on February 4th to ban political meetings and marches, virtually all areas of German politics were being placed under official control and limitations. These powers were also quickly used, as the same night of it being implemented, the Nazi Party arrested around 4,000 political opponents and many of whom were tortured and imprisoned. Then, by March 23, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which was supposed to mark the union of National Socialism with Hindenburg and the German establishment. In reality, the Nazis tightened their control over Germany and the people. By the end of the year all other political parties had been banned and things like labour unions ceased to exist. When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler combined the posts of president and chancellor, cementing his power.[7]

Therefore, the Reichstag Fire must be understood as a catalyst for Hitler’s dictatorship. What started as a single event snowballed into a huge political campaign and aid for the Nazis. One man’s actions (or was he aided?) of burning down the Reichstag building saw Hitler gain immense power in a very short amount of time, place crippling controls over citizens and create an entirely one-sided political climate within Germany that would last until their defeat in 1945. Arguably, without the Reichstag Fire, Hitler would not have reached the position he did, and certainly not as quickly. Not only did the Reichstag Fire hand the Nazis a very visible and plausible political enemy, but it provided Hitler with the chance to exploit German politics to his advantage and ultimately take power for himself. Van der Lubbe’s communist sympathies provided Hitler with the ‘evidence’ he needed that the Communists were the problem, and that he was Germany’s saviour to fight back against them.

Marinus van der Lubbe was tried and charged with treason, and was executed in 1934.

Image retrieved from https://facingtoday.facinghistory.org/the-reichstag-fire-the-shift-from-democracy-to-dictatorship-. (Credit to Granger, NYC).


[1] History.com. (2019). Reichstag Fire. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/germany/reichstag-fire.

[2] History.com. (2019).

[3] Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020). Reichstag Fire: German history. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Reichstag-fire.

[4] Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020).

[5] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2020). The Reichstag Fire. Retrieved from https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-reichstag-fire.

[6] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2020).

[7] History.com. (2019).

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