Opposition in Flames
By January 30, 1933, the eve of the Nazi takeover, it was still unclear whether Hitler and the National Socialists would rule Germany without a fight. The two anti-Nazi opposition parties, the Communists and the Social Democrats, still held far-reaching networks of activists, many of them armed. They boasted millions of loyal supporters, clubs, and labor unions, and more than enough young men willing to fight. Within a year, all of these seemingly formidable networks of opposition would disappear, consumed by fire.
In the evening of February 27, 1933, two pedestrians and a policeman were walking by the Reichstag, the impressive home of the German parliament in Berlin, when something unusual suddenly caught their eyes. A light, some strange flicker, was dancing behind the windows, followed by a swiftly moving shadow. The policeman knew immediately he was looking at arson, and called for reinforcements. Police entered the Reichstag together, moving through a screen of thick, black smoke. Quickly, they noticed the mysterious trespasser sneaking from the chamber, half-naked, covered in sweat, with a beet-red face and unkempt hair. A passport found on him indicated that his name was Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch citizen. He had used his shirt and a can of gasoline to start a fire. When asked for his reasons, he answered, “Protest! Protest!”1
Few of the many Berliners who witnessed the flames in horror imagined that the new Reich chancellor, Adolf Hitler, would use the fire as an excuse to uproot all opposition networks, organizations, and parties in Germany. The chancellor, appointed only one month earlier, on January 30, destroyed in less than one year political parties of all persuasions, the autonomy of the German states, and the powerful trade unions. Dramatic changes also swept the civil service, the judicial system, schools and universities, and most importantly, the army. By late 1934, Hitler and his Nazi Party were the sole masters of Germany, unobstructed by any effective form of active or potential opposition.
The politicians of the new regime were quick to arrive at the burning building. First among them was Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s paladins and speaker of the Reichstag. The commander of the firefighters gave him a report on the attempts to extinguish the fire, but Göring was more interested in extinguishing something else. “The guilty are the Communist revolutionaries,” he said. “This act is the beginning of the Communist uprising, which must be promptly crushed with an iron fist.” Hitler and his propaganda master, Josef Goebbels, were not far behind. “From this day on,” declared the new chancellor, “anyone standing in our way will be done for. Softness will not be understood by the German people. The Communist deputies have to be hanged tonight.”2
The Reichstag, one of the last relics of the dying Weimar Republic, was reduced to a blackened shell. Alarm swept the country, fed by sensationalist headlines in the morning papers. “Against murderers, arsonists and poisoners there can only be rigorous defense,” read one of them. “Against terror, reckoning through the death penalty.” Alarm soon became hysteria. “They wanted to send armed gangs to the villages to murder and start fires,” noted Luise Solmitz, a conservative schoolteacher, in her diary.3 “So the Communists had burned down the Reichstag,” wrote Sebastian Haffner, a young jurist and one of the few remaining skeptics.
That could well be so, it was even to be expected. Funny, though, why they should choose the Reichstag, an empty building, where no one would profit from a fire. Well, perhaps it really had been intended as the “signal” for the uprising, which had been prevented by the “decisive measures” taken by the government. That was what the papers said, and it sounded plausible. Funny also that the Nazis got so worked up about the Reichstag. Up till then they had contemptuously called it a “hot air factory.” Now it was suddenly the holy of holies that had been burned down .?.?. The main thing is: the danger of a Communist uprising has been averted and we can sleep easy.4
Neither the government nor the Communists were sleeping easy. On the eve of the Reichstag fire, Hitler had yet to win support from the majority of Germans. The National Socialist Party was still far from a Reichstag majority. The opposition parties from the left, the Social Democrats and the Communists, were still major political powers.5 Now, the Nazis used the red scare to rally large parts of the German public to their cause. Many people, even if cold to Hitler and his radical ideas, began to consider him the lesser evil. Others, especially adherents of the National Conservative right, turned to the Nazi leader as a redeemer. The teacher Luise Solmitz, though married to a converted Jew, was one of them. “The feelings of most Germans are dominated by Hitler,” she confided in her journal. “His fame rises to the stars. He is the savior of a wicked, sad world.”6 The fears of the public were exploited to kick off a half-planned, half-improvised campaign for total political, cultural, and ideological subjugation of Germany. Needless to say, the charged atmosphere made it easier to neutralize all centers of power from which prospective opposition might arise.
Who really burned the Reichstag? Was it a National Socialist sham, or an act of solitary lunacy committed by van der Lubbe? Scholars have debated this question ever since.7 In any case, the Nazis were the only winners. When they formed the government, they demanded only two portfolios apart from the chancellorship: the ministry of internal affairs of the Reich and the corresponding ministry in Prussia, the largest and most important German state. They knew what they were doing. These two ministries gave them total control over the police, the secret police, and internal security apparatus all over the Reich. Using their newly won power, they set out to destroy the opposition root and branch by way of propaganda, temptation of Germans who were not yet convinced Nazis, and terror against remaining members of the opposition.
Resistance became ever more dangerous. One of the founding fathers of the German resistance movement, Hans Bernd Gisevius, wrote bitterly later, “Was it the Reichstag alone? Was not all Berlin on fire?”8 The campaign to eliminate the opposition and its institutions was a part of a larger process, which was later called Gleichschaltung (bringing into line). Its intention was to take full control of German society by injecting National Socialist ideology into all aspects of life, accompanied by lucrative carrots for collaborators and sharp sticks for anyone who dared to resist.
On February 28, one day after the Reichstag fire, the constitutional barriers were broken. The new government passed emergency decrees “for the protection of people and state,” allowing it to monitor letters, telegrams, and phone calls, and to restrict the freedom of speech and the press. More importantly, the right of habeas corpus was suspended, so enemies of the regime could not even expect proper redress by law.
The first victims were the Communists. The Nazis blamed them for the fire and ordered the arrest of their Reichstag section leader. In just a few weeks, the party disintegrated: its newspapers closed, organizations were banned, and all leaders were placed under arrest. The Communist force,