Richard J Evans On Conspiracy Theory And the Reichstag Fire

A fascinating article on the Reichstag Fire by historian Richard J Evans appears in the London Review of Books. An excerpt:

The Third Reich was founded on a conspiracy theory. The Communists, the Nazis’ most implacable opponents, had won 17 per cent of the vote in the last completely free elections of the Weimar Republic, in November 1932, increasing their support while the Nazis dropped back. They had never made any secret of wanting to destroy Weimar democracy and create a Communist state. It seemed obvious to Hitler that the destruction of the Reichstag could only be the result of a Communist plot to seize power. The Nazi leadership proceeded therefore to charge a number of Communists with conspiracy. A wave of propaganda convinced many middle-class Germans that the emergency decree was justified.

During the blaze, the police found a young Dutchman called Marinus van der Lubbe in the building. He had firelighters in his possession and other suspicious material. By the time he was brought to trial before the Supreme Court in Leipzig, he had been joined in the dock by Georgi Dimitrov, head of the Central Europe Section of the Communist International, two other Bulgarian Communists who had been in Berlin at the time of the fire, and Ernst Torgler, chairman of the German Communist Party in the Reichstag. The trial was a fiasco. Dimitrov ran rings round the prosecution, reduced Göring, who appeared as a witness, to incoherent rage, and mocked the Nazis’ conspiracy theory with wit and panache. The trial judges, led by Wilhelm Bünger, a conservative but not a Nazi, a former minister-president of Saxony, found that the Communists had planned the fire, but dismissed the charges against Torgler and the three Bulgarians on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Van der Lubbe was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed in accordance with a Nazi decree postdating the fire that made arson subject to capital punishment – the first of many Nazi violations of fundamental legal principles. The Nazis did their best to make political capital out of the verdict, but privately Hitler was furious. He quickly set up a new system of special courts, crowned by the so-called People’s Court, to bypass the clearly unreliable traditional legal system and deliver the verdicts he wanted in future cases. But Torgler and the Bulgarians could not be tried again (double jeopardy was a principle even the Nazis were unwilling to violate at this point), and they were eventually released; after secret negotiations they made their way to the Soviet Union. Dimitrov would become the first Communist leader of Bulgaria after the war. Torgler, probably to save his son from the violent retribution threatened by the Nazis, began working for the Gestapo and eventually took a minor post in the Propaganda Ministry, a move that caused him considerable problems after the war.

Read the rest.

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