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Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into…

Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring…

by Benjamin Carter Hett

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While an interesting work I have to agree that this seems to be a case of that one might have expected more. What one has here is not so much an examination of the plot that led to the Reichstag Fire, as regardless of suspicions that the SA was the responsible party those tracks appear to be obliterated beyond recapturing, but an examination of how the unlikely narrative of Marinus van der Lubbe being the sole guilty party took hold in the Federal Republic of Germany. Let's just say that the assignment of guilt to a lone actor was a very convenient alibi for the German legal establishment and law-enforcement apparatus, whose commitment to nationalism and anti-communism had made it very easy for the Nazi regime to corrupt them. ( )
  Shrike58 | Aug 16, 2017 |
By Thomas E. Nutter

Benjamin Carter Hett: Burning the Reichstag. An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery.

Oxford University Press, January 2014.

Benjamin Carter Hett is Professor of History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. In addition to Burning the Reichstag. An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery, Professor Hett has written Death in the Tiergarten. Murder and Criminal Justice in the Kaiser’s Berlin (2004), Crossing Hitler. The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand (2008), and most recently, the Introduction to The True German. The Diary of a World War II Military Judge, by Werner Otto Mueller-Hill (Oxford University Press, January 2014).

Benjamin Carter Hett’s Burning the Reichstag is one of the most interesting books you will ever read. Everyone with an interest in modern German history, including those with only a rudimentary knowledge of the Reichstag Fire, may benefit from reading this book.

One reason why the book is so interesting is that Hett writes with energy, passion and clarity, and to say that he knows his subject well would be a gross understatement.

A second reason to read Hett’s work is that the story it tells is an interesting one. On the night of February 27, 1933, six days before the third German federal election in less than a year, the Berlin Reichstag caught fire under circumstances that remain obscure.

The building, in which the German government’s legislature met, was heavily damaged by the fire, and yet further damaged in the fighting for Berlin in April 1945. In divided post-war Germany the structure was barely within West Germany, but was unused until German reunification. It was then completely refurbished, and now is home to the German Bundestag.

The culprit who set the Reichstag alight has never been conclusively identified….unless, of course, you are partial to the National Socialist (or Conservative, Nationalist, etc.) view of the thing. In that case, the lone perpetrator of the crime was one Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch citizen who was arrested at the scene. Van der Lubbe had left wing sympathies, and at trial testified that he had set the fire “to help the workers.” He was convicted of the crime, and slightly less than a year later was beheaded by the state’s executioner.

Interestingly enough, there is another group whose members subscribe to the theory that van der Lubbe was the source of the conflagration, and that he acted alone. That group is comprised of most of the historians who have spent time studying and reading all of the secondary works on the topic. Indeed, among historians it is generally accepted that Marinus van der Lubbe was the sole perpetrator of the crime.

For Professor Hett, the real story of the Reichstag Fire is not the event itself, but the politics of that event. The Reichstag Fire was an inherently significant event, for it involved the seat of the German federal government. But the fire was even more important because it occurred during the run-up to a hotly contested federal election, one that would prove to be the last free election in Germany until 1949.

From Hett’s point of view the fact that the fire occurred so close to the federal election could not have been coincidence. Clearly it was the work of the Nazis, who wanted to profit politically from the event by connecting both the Communists and the Social Democrats with the fire.

Burning the Reichstag is the product of years of intense research by Professor Hett in both personal and German federal archives, as well as interviews with the few remaining eye witnesses to the events. The whole point of the exercise was to develop proof that the fire was not the act of one person, and that the Nazis were responsible for the event, which Hett describes as the “the foundation of the narrative of Nazism…the birth-hour of the concentration camps”.

Regrettably, the results of such a large expenditure of time, money and effort on the part of the author must surely be regarded, even by Professor Hett, as somewhat anticlimactic.

Professor Hett’s conclusions in this case are more negative than positive in nature. Hett does seem to have shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Marinus van der Lubbe did not start the Reichstag Fire alone, because the facts establish that he could not have done so.

But as the author freely admits, proving that something did not happen is not the same as having proven what in fact did happen. And Hett also recognizes that all of his research has failed to prove who really did start the fire.

Professor Hett’s realization that the fruits of his lengthy and expensive inquiry were inconclusive must surely have been frustrating for him. On the National Socialist side, for example, there was an embarrassment of riches with regard to likely suspects.

There was, of course, the madman himself, but Hett concluded that as to the Fuehrer “there is no evidence…that he knew of, let alone ordered” the Reichstag Fire. And the same is true of Goebbels, Goering, and even the SA…there are no facts to even suggest their guilt.

Perhaps in vexation, Professor Hett changed the nature of his inquiry, asking rhetorically of the reader whether an unequivocal answer to the question of who started the Reichstag Fire would “matter”. And it is at this point in the book that the author goes off the tracks.

For Professor Hett, of course, determining unequivocally who started the Reichstag Fire matters a great deal. The suggestion that the inquiry be abandoned, since a conclusive answer as to responsibility would prove of little consequence in any case, “misses the point”.

Professor Hett’s view is that the Reichstag Fire is a symbol. Of what, you ask. The fire is a symbol of the collective guilt of all Germans, past, present and future (he makes no distinction) for the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Should you regard the preceding as hasty, the product of bias, misrepresentation, or just plain lies, please direct your attention to the book’s conclusion.

The theory that the Reichstag Fire was the work of one man was, Hett urges, welcomed by the postwar German Right, because it spoke to their “barely suppressed rage at constant reassertions of German guilt for the Holocaust.”

It follows, then, that historians must not concede to Germans the truth of the theory that the Reichstag Fire was the product of one man’s work. The Germans, Hett claims, use the theory that the fire was caused by van der Lubbe alone to “control the narrative of the fire”. And, Hett concludes, “to control the narrative of the fire is to control the narrative of Nazism itself”.

Who, then, should best control the “narrative of the fire”? Hett suggests, without saying it outright, that dispassionate, unbiased historians should control it, because “to control the narrative of the fire is to control the narrative of Nazism itself.”

Professor Hett’s choice of words in describing the importance of owning the “narrative of the fire” is an unfortunate one, for those words paraphrase one of the basic tenets of political power embraced by Big Brother and the Party in Orwell’s 1984:

Who Controls the Past Controls the Future;
Who Controls the Present Controls the Past.

Is it now the place of historians to control the past, or at least to control how it is to be interpreted?

5 Stars
***** ( )
  tenutter | Apr 30, 2014 |
We’ve long since passed the point where everyone thinks World War II started in 1941. That’s just when the US declared war. Most students get the modern version that has the war starting in 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland. China and Japan had been fighting since 1937, but now both sides of world were at war. But few, however, can pinpoint its ideological roots. Why did Germany invade? What led the German state to believe it could conquer Europe? While these questions are still being debated, there is an interesting occurrence which basically led to the formation of the Nazi state: the Reichstag fire of 1933. Benjamin Hett’s Burning the Reichstag studies the events and politics surrounding this fateful event.

During the evening of February 27, 1933, a fire erupted in the Reichstag, the German seat of government. It took a few hours to get under control, but eventually it was extinguished. Adolf Hitler, the newly-elected Chancellor of Germany was notified and he immediately blamed the Communists for trying to overthrow parliament. At the time, the Nazi party controlled only a third of the seats in parliament, about twice as many as the Communists. Hitler was already in the middle of proceedings to dissolve parliament and hold new elections (in an effort to increase Nazi seats). The fire allowed to him issue the Reichstag Fire Decree which effectively suspended civil liberties for Germans citizens. The ensuing elections and political bonds formed thereafter gave him power to pass the Enabling Act, giving direct and dictatorial power to the Chancellor. All this from one fire.

While the man responsible, Marinus van der Lubbe, was indeed a Communist and is historically believed to have done the deed, there is conflicting evidence as to whether it was part of a conspiracy on the part of the Communist party to start a coup or whether this was the Nazi machine’s first plot to gain control of the country. He may have been goaded into doing so by the Nazis in an effort to frame the Communists. Hett’s narrative of the events and the social climate, including the trial involving van der Lubbe and his supposed Bulgarian Communist co-conspirators, proves to be a very interesting read. Some of the more enticing bits are concerning the author himself, who writes about corresponding with the few people remaining who were actually involved in the fire and looking through the notes of past researchers. He proves that history is not just about what’s in the past, but that it’s still evolving, still seeking its own truth. It gets a little convoluted in places when he tries to parse out all the political connections and machinations, but his details are myriad and much-needed (he literally gives a minute-by-minute account of the night of the fire reconstructed from trail transcripts and police reports). All in all, this was a well-researched and thought-provoking book. ( )
1 vote NielsenGW | May 3, 2013 |
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Delving into the controversy surrounding the fire that burned down the Reichstag and ignited the Third Reich, this account of Hitler's rise to dictatorship reopens the arson case, profiling key figures and making use of new sources and archives to reinvestigate one of the greatest mysteries of the Nazi period.… (more)

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