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The first signs of something happening come a few minutes past nine o’clock on an icy winter evening in Berlin. Hans Flöter, a theology student, is walking home from an evening of study at the State Library on Unter den Linden. Crossing the square in front of the massive Reichstag, he hears a window breaking. Flöter alerts Karl Buwert, a police officer walking his beat in front of the building. Civic duty done, Flöter continues on his way home. Werner Thaler, a typesetter at the Nazi newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter (Nationalist Observer), also approaches Buwert: moving closer to the building and looking through a first-floor window, the two men think they see someone inside carrying a torch. Buwert fires his revolver at the glow, but without much result.
Alarming news keeps coming. A young man wearing high military-style boots and a black coat appears at the Brandenburg Gate police station at 9:15 to report that the Reichstag is on fire. The police carefully note the time and the message, but in the excitement, they forget to take the man’s name. His identity remains a mystery to this day. Within a few minutes the glow of flames is clearly visible through the glass cupola over the Reichstag’s plenary chamber. At 9:27 the chamber explodes. Firefighters and police find themselves faced with a catastrophic fire at the heart of the building.
Two minutes before this, the police have arrested a strange young man lurking in a corridor near the burning chamber. His papers show that he is Marinus van der Lubbe, journeyman mason, age twenty-four, of Leiden, Holland. Van der Lubbe is naked to the waist and sweating profusely. He gladly confesses to being the arsonist. No one at the time thinks he could be the only one.
The firefighters rush to work, drawing water from the nearby River Spree as well as from hydrants around the building. They are able to train their hoses on the burning chamber from all sides. With the hoses in place, the blaze is brought under control within seventy-five minutes.
Even as the fire is spreading, Germany’s leaders arrive at the Reichstag. The first is Hermann Göring, the Nazi interior minister of the state of Prussia. A few minutes later, a black Mercedes limousine delivers the new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. The urbane, aristocratic vice-chancellor Franz von Papen is there, immaculately dressed as always, and seemingly unruffled. Rudolf Diels, the handsome thirty-two-year-old chief of the secret police, was disturbed while on a date (“a most unpolice-like rendezvous,” as he will later put it) at the elegant Café Kranzler on Unter den Linden. As Diels tells it, he arrives in time to hear a tirade from the new chancellor. Hitler already seems to know who has set the fire. Standing on a balcony looking over at the burning chamber, his face reflecting the glow of the flames, the chancellor rages, “There will be no mercy now … Every Communist official will be shot where he is found. The Communist deputies must be hanged this very night!”
Soon, Göring puts out an official press release reflecting Hitler’s wishes. After describing the extensive damage to the building, Göring’s statement calls the fire “the most monstrous Bolshevik act of terror in Germany to date,” and the “beacon for a bloody uprising and civil war.”
But a dramatically different explanation begins to spread just as quickly as the official story. It is not yet midnight when an Austrian reporter named Willi Frischauer, Berlin correspondent for the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung (Vienna General News), cables his paper: “There can be little doubt that the fire which is consuming the Reichstag was the work of hirelings of the Hitler Government.” Frischauer thinks that these “hirelings” probably made their way into the Reichstag through a tunnel connecting the building to the official residence of the speaker of the Reichstag. The speaker of the Reichstag is Hermann Göring.
Reporters tell stories about crimes. Governments make arrests. Even as the firefighters struggle with the burning chamber, two separate waves of arrests begin. The Berlin police, working from carefully prepared lists, begin rounding up Communists, pacifists, clergymen, lawyers, artists, writers—anyone at all whom they judge likely to be hostile to the Nazis. The police bring their prisoners to Berlin’s police headquarters at Alexanderplatz and book them, everything proper and official. At the same time, though, the Nazi Stormtroopers of Berlin carry out an arrest action of their own. The Stormtroopers have lists, too, but they do not register their prisoners officially. They bring them to abandoned basements, warehouses, even a water tower, where the prisoners are beaten and tortured in a hundred different ways, in many cases killed. Soon Berliners have a new name for these places: “wild concentration camps.”
It is Monday, February 27, 1933. We might say it is the last night of the Weimar Republic, the last night of German democracy.
* * *
WHEN THE REICHSTAG burned, Adolf Hitler had been chancellor of the German Reich for precisely four weeks. He had come to office in a constitutionally legitimate, even democratic way. His party had emerged from two elections in the previous year with the largest number of seats in the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament. At the end of January, Germany’s president, the venerable eighty-five-year-old field marshal Paul von Hindenburg, had reluctantly but properly called on Hitler to take on the chancellorship and form a cabinet. Hindenburg had reserved for himself the appointment of ministers to the key portfolios of defense and foreign affairs, and it was also part of the deal that Franz von Papen, who had briefly been chancellor in 1932, would serve under Hitler as vice-chancellor. Papen was Hindenburg’s protégé, despite being Catholic—a faith with which the resolutely Lutheran field marshal was far from comfortable.
Hitler’s new cabinet came into office on January 30 looking much like other administrations of the democratic Weimar Republic, if a bit more oriented to the right than even Papen’s “cabinet of barons” of the previous year. Hitler’s government was still a coalition, with key ministries being held by representatives of the establishment right-wing German National People’s Party and the conservative veterans’ organization the Steel Helmet, with a sprinkling of nonpartisan establishment figures. Apart from Hitler himself, the Nazis held only two other cabinet positions: the veteran Nazi activist Wilhelm Frick was Reich interior minister, and Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermann Göring, was minister without portfolio (a member of cabinet without departmental responsibility). At the time, few people appreciated the crucial importance of one detail: Göring also became the interior minister of the giant state of Prussia, which comprised three-fifths of Germany’s land and people. Prussia had fifty thousand men in its state police forces, making the Prussian police half the size of the German Army.
To almost all seasoned observers, Hitler’s political position on January 30 looked weak. It was designed to be weak. Like the three chancellors before him, he had been put into office by a small circle of powerful men who had Hindenburg’s ear. They sought to take advantage of Hitler’s demagogic gifts and mass following to advance their own agenda. They knew that without someone like Hitler to serve as a front man, they, and their goals, stood no chance of anything more than minuscule electoral support. They assumed they had Hitler squarely under control. Why should they not? These were men such as Vice-Chancellor von Papen and President von Hindenburg, aristocrats bred to leadership and army officers experienced in command. Hitler was the nameless son of a minor Austrian customs official, with little formal education. He made grammatical mistakes in his mother tongue. In four years of almost continuous service on the Western Front, he had never risen above the rank of private first class (Gefreiter) because, as one of his officers explained later, he was judged to lack the leadership qualities of a sergeant. Mingling class, rank, and North German prejudices, Hindenburg referred to Hitler contemptuously as “the Bohemian private.” Sure, Hitler could excite lower-class mobs at a rally or a beer hall, but he was not a gentleman. He could not possibly govern.
This was a view held with remarkable unanimity across the German political spectrum. “We have hired him,” Papen wrote confidently of Hitler. “In a few months we will have pushed him so far into the corner that he will squeak.” The independent Nationalist politician Gottfried Treviranus wrote years later that everyone he knew expected Hitler to “exhaust himself on the phalanx of Hindenburg, the army, and the constitution.” Friedrich Stampfer, editor in chief of the Social Democratic paper Vorwärts (Forward), asked a foreign correspondent if he seriously believed that “this roaring gorilla can govern,” adding that Hitler’s government would last no longer than three weeks. A young carpenter and furniture maker named Max Fürst—whose political sympathies were far to the left and whose roommate, the radical lawyer Hans Litten, had earned notoriety by cross-examining Hitler in a Berlin courtroom two years before—thought that “it probably couldn’t get any worse than the Papen administration.”
Everyone knew, of course, about the intemperate tone of Hitler’s rhetoric. In his speeches and in his rambling memoir Mein Kampf, he had raged against “the Jews” and “the Marxists.” The men who had put together Germany’s new democracy after the Armistice of 1918 were nothing but “November criminals,” whose peace settlement was a betrayal of the German nation and its heroic army. Hitler had spoken openly about the need of a war to conquer Lebensraum, or “living space,” in “the east.” Especially in the most recent years, his movement had meted out brutal violence to its opponents, and Hitler had threatened still more if he were to come into power. “Heads will roll in the sand,” he had told a court, testifying under oath in 1930 at the sedition trial of three army officers who were also Nazi activists.
But power always made radical leaders act reasonably, didn’t it? This was an almost universal experience in political life. In 1933, after fifteen years of political responsibility, Germany’s Social Democrats were a pale, timid shadow of their revolutionary pre-1914 selves. And they were dramatically less popular with the electorate, their vote share in national elections having fallen from nearly 39 percent in 1919 to 20 percent in 1932. President Hindenburg’s inner circle calculated that bringing the Nazis into the government would do to Hitler’s party precisely what the Weimar Republic had done to the Social Democrats. In early 1933, many Germans shared this assumption. One well-connected and thoughtful observer, surprised by the moderation of Hitler’s first speech as chancellor, wondered if “the Chancellor Hitler might think differently than the vote-catcher Hitler did?”
Yet even the first weeks of Hitler’s chancellorship provided more to worry about than Papen’s government had ever offered. There was more violence, not least from the Nazi Stormtroopers the new government had recruited en masse into the police forces. Opposition newspapers and political events were closed down. It became increasingly difficult for other political groups to campaign at all. Yet it was the Reichstag fire that truly changed the course of events.
Hitler’s cabinet met at eleven o’clock the morning after the fire. Reich interior minister Frick presented a text bearing the title “Decree of Reich President von Hindenburg for the Protection of People and State,” known informally ever after as the “Reichstag Fire Decree.” The decree expressed Hitler’s theory that the Reichstag fire marked the start of a Communist uprising. The state needed emergency powers to defend itself. The decree suspended the civil liberties contained in the German constitution, legalizing the imprisonment without trial of anyone the regime deemed a political threat and effectively abolishing freedom of speech, assembly and association, confidentiality of the post and telegraphic communications, and security from warrantless searches. It also gave the Reich government the power to replace any federal state administration if “the necessary measures are not enacted for the reestablishment of public security and order.” The cabinet approved the decree, and later that day, Hindenburg signed it into law.
This decree was, in the words of the distinguished legal scholar Ernst Fraenkel, the “constitutional charter” of Hitler’s Reich. It was the legal basis for all the arrests and deportations, for the concentration camps and the infamous secret police, the Gestapo. It also allowed the Nazis effectively to abolish Germany’s federal system and extend their rule over all the states of the union. For most Germans alive in 1933, the Reichstag fire and the decree marked a crucial turning point. Walter Kiaulehn, a seasoned Berlin reporter, concluded an elegiac book about his native city written after the war with the words, “First the Reichstag burned, then the books, and soon the synagogues. Then Germany began to burn, England, France and Russia…”
* * *
HOW COULD THIS happen?
This is one of the great questions in all of human history. For we know too well the consequences of Hitler’s ascent to the chancellorship: the most devastating war the world had yet seen, accompanied by a campaign of mass murder so sweeping and unprecedented that legal scholar Raphael Lemkin had to coin a new word for it: genocide.
The question of how this could happen takes on a special, agonizing force against the background out of which Hitler and Nazism grew: the Germany of Weimar. Here, surely, was some kind of apex of human civilization. The 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic created a state-of-the-art modern democracy, with a scrupulously just proportional electoral system and protection for individual rights and freedoms, expressly including the equality of men and women. Social and political activists fought, with considerable success, for even more. Germany had the world’s most prominent gay rights movement. It was home to an active feminist movement that, having just won the vote, was moving on to abortion rights. Campaigns against the death penalty had been so successful in Germany that, in practice, the ax was never used. At the beginning of the Republic, workers had won the eight-hour day with full pay. Jews from Poland and Russia were drawn to Germany’s tolerance and openness.
Germany led the world in more than politics and social activism. Even before 1914, Pablo Picasso had told a friend that if he had a son who wanted to paint, he would send him to Munich for training, not to Paris. Germany’s Expressionist and “New Realist” painters (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, George Grosz, Otto Dix) were producing some of the most exciting and troubling art of the age. The Bauhaus school turned out architects and designers whose ideas still influence their fields today. If you cared about music, no country could rival Germany’s remarkable orchestras, ensembles, and soloists. And here, too, Germans were making the future, whether in the difficult classical works of Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith, or in the exciting modern hybrids of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Movies? Berlin could claim to be a second Hollywood, and with directors such as Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst, or F. W. Murnau, one that worked at a higher artistic level than the American original. The presence of writers like Alfred Döblin, Franz Kafka (who took up residence in Germany at the end of his life), and brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann meant that Germany could match any other country in literature as well.
Germany’s reputation in science and scholarship was unrivalled. In the 1920s, around a third of the world’s physics journals were written in German, and of course Albert Einstein held a professorship at the University of Berlin while his friend, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist Fritz Haber, directed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in the suburb of Dahlem. It was probably the excellence of German science and German universities that explained why the country led the world in industries such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and competed strongly with American cars for quality if not quantity.
If Germany had long prided itself on being the “land of poets and thinkers,” then in the 1920s it seemed to surpass even itself. And yet somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy, grew the most evil regime in human history. Hitler’s Reich utterly destroyed the creativity of Weimar, and destroyed it permanently. Many Germans still mourn what they have lost. “The uncertain Germans do not frighten Europe any longer, but nor do they fascinate anyone,” the publisher Wolf Jobst Siedler lamented in 2000. We still puzzle over how this could have happened. That barbarism could issue from high civilization seems to confound our deepest beliefs and intuitions.
Hitler’s Germany is unique among all regimes in human history in at least one respect: serious historians are unanimous in judging it a catastrophe with no redeeming features. There is no other regime, not even the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that can claim such a dubious distinction. But that is also where agreement ends. Hitler’s Germany is a kind of historical Rorschach test: we project onto it whatever we believe to be the worst conceivable political features. What you think those might be depends on who you are. Not everyone sees it the same way. This kind of projection affects explanations of how Hitler’s regime came about, and this means that historians have always offered contradictory narratives of the fall of the Weimar Republic.
Copyright © 2018 by Benjamin Carter Hett