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Who's Who in World War 2 by David Mason
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Who's Who in World War 2

by David Mason

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BOOK REVIEW
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 |
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