Berliners watch the Reichstag burn
President Hindenburg finally agreed to install Adolf Hitler as chancellor on 30 January 1933 as part of a coalition – in the hope that Hitler might be able to garner a majority in the fractious and divided Reichstag (parliament). The coalition ministry contained only two other Nazis – Wilhelm Frick and Hermann Göring.
In response to the appointment, the Nazis staged torchlight processions – trumpeting the dawn of a new age for Germany.
Hitler failed to negotiate parliamentary support. On 1 February Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag and ordered elections for 5 March.
On 27 February 1933, the immense Reichstag building, the focal point of Berlin’s imperial district, was set on fire and destroyed. Only the shell remained. It was a shocking act of terrorism.
In the midst of the public alarm that followed, Hitler presented President Hindenburg with an emergency decree, drafted by non-Nazi public servants, ‘for the protection of the people and the state’.
The decree abrogated basic civil rights. Hitler said that with this decree he could ‘try enemies of the state legally and deal with them in a way that will put an end to conspiracies once and for all.’
In the final week of the campaign, the Nazis rode the panic about the fire shamelessly – loudly blaming the Communist Party and whipping up hysteria about the communist menace. Today, there is widespread suspicion that the Nazis burnt the Reichstag.
Hermann Göring was Prussian minister for the interior – giving him control of security for almost two thirds of Germany. Immediately he installed Nazis in key positions. He ordered police not to interfere with Nazi brownshirts (the Sturmabteilung – storm troopers, or SA, which constituted the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party) but to shoot at communists. He also established a force of 50,000 auxiliary police – mostly brawling thugs of the Nazi SA and SS (the Schutzstaffel, or ‘guard detachment’ – or blackshirts – at this stage a small elite force theoretically part of the SA) – who simply pulled a white armband over their brown or black shirts to become the law.
On 5 March, having rigged the result, the Nazis increased their vote to 43.9 per cent (the highest they had ever received). It was still short of a majority, but the Nazis had enough coalition support for Hitler to remain as chancellor. There would be no need for more free elections.
The alleged perpetrators of the Reichstag fire were tried before judges of Germany's highest court - the Reichsgericht. Marinus van der Lubbe was convicted and executed. However, the four co-accused - Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vasil Tanev - all officials of the Communist Party - were acquitted. Those acquittals prompted a furious Adolf Hitler to establish a 'People's Court' which would deal with so-called 'political' crimes.
This is an edited extract from TREASON: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Plot to Kill Hitler