In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected to be Chancellor of Germany, and one of his first acts was to call for a second election for seats in the German Parliament, called the Reichstag. Hitler's intention was to fill the Reichstag with other Nazi party officials, allowing them to replace the Weimar Republic - the German system of Parliamentary democracy instituted after World War I - with their own government to control Germany's future. The Nazi party's main opposition to this bold plan was the Communist party.
At a few minutes after ten on the night of February 27, 1933, less than a month after Hitler became Chancellor, a call came in to the Berlin Fire Department claiming that the Reichstag building was on fire. Fire fighters raced to the scene to discover that the building was fully engulfed; fires had been started in at least 20 different places within the building. Hitler himself was having dinner at the Berlin apartment of his party campaign manager, Joseph Goebbels, but upon hearing of the fire, both men climbed into their waiting cars and rushed to the scene.
Police responding to the scene discovered Marinus van der Lubbe, a 24-year-old Dutch bricklayer and Communist propagandist, inside the burning building. Van der Lubbe was dressed only in shoes and pants, and had matches and a cigarette lighter in his pockets; he had arrived in Berlin only about a week earlier, railing against the Nazis and calling for a pro-Communist uprising to replace them. Van der Lubbe quickly claimed sole responsibility for the fire, and when Hitler and Goebbels met Hermann Göring at the site, they were notified of his capture.
Hitler's party toured the site of the fire, even as it continued to burn; at one point, they were denied entry to a room because the chandelier was in danger of an imminent fall. Göring stated repeatedly that the Communists were responsible, pointing out with precision where the first gasoline-soaked rags were placed and what tinder they first lit. Hitler, red-faced and excited, extolled to British journalist Sefton Delmer that "This be the work of the Communists. You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning."
There is debate, even to this day, as to whether Van der Lubbe (left) acted alone, and what his motives may have been. The suspicion arose that the Nazi party, or elements thereof, aided Van der Lubbe in setting the fires; there certainly was an easily visible motivation for them to burn the Reichstag and blame the Communists for it. However, there has never been concrete proof one way or the other, but regardless of the ultimate culprit, the Nazi party was ready to take advantage of the occasion with full force.
Within hours, Hitler and his staff had orchestrated raids on the homes of 400 suspected Communist sympathizers. The next morning, Hitler forced the institution of the Reichstag Fire Decree, implementing of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which authorized the President (aging but respected Paul von Hindenburg, who by that time did whatever Hitler commanded) to completely suspend civil liberties in times of national emergency. Article 48 was a temporary measure, to be revoked once the emergency was over, but it was never revoked; overnight, German citizens lost the rights to free expression, assembly, form groups, due process of law, and left them subject to complete government control over their homes, property, companies, and all sorts of search and seizure options. Hitler was, from that point on, a totalitarian dictator.
The second election which Hitler had arranged took place only five days later. Nazi agents were unrestricted in the amount of pressure and outright violence they could inflict upon their political opponents, and as a result of that and anti-Communist fervor whipped up in the aftermath of the fire, the Nazis cruised to a major victory. Goebbels was installed as the Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and Göring went on to create the infamous Gestapo in November of 1933. Van der Lubbe was tried, found guilty and, in 1934, beheaded.
Links and Sources:
Delmer, Sefton, Trail Sinister, Martin Secker and Warburg, London, 1961.
Holborn, Hajo, A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945, Volume 3, Princeton University Press, 1982.
Jeffers, H. Paul, History's Greatest Conspiracies, Globe Pequot, 2004.