943: Burning the Reichstag by Benjamin C. Hett

by Gerard


943.086: Hett, Benjamin Carter. Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014. 337 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-932232-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 940: History of Europe
  • 943: History of Germany and neighboring Central European countries
  • 943.08: 1866 to present
  • 943.086: Period of the Third Reich, 1933-1945

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.