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Who Burnt the Reichstag?

The conflagration of the Reichstag provided Hitler with a heaven-sent opportunity. But the theory that the Nazis had planned it themselves now appears to be entirely baseless.

Firemen work on the burning Reichstag.
Firemen work on the burning Reichstag.

On the evening of February 27th, 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin was set on fire and went up in flames. This was a stroke of good fortune for the Nazis. Although Hitler had been appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg on January 30th, the Nazis did not have a parliamentary majority, even with their Nationalist allies.

The Reichstag was dissolved; and the Nazis began a raging electoral campaign. They were still doubtful of success. They badly needed a ‘Red’ scare. On February 24th the police raided Communist headquarters. It was announced that they had discovered plans for a Communist revolution. Evidently they did not discover much: the alleged subversive documents were never published.

Then came the burning of the Reichstag. Here was the Red scare ready-made. On the following day, Hindenburg promulgated an emergency decree ‘for the protection of the People and the State.’ The constitutional guarantees of individual liberty were suspended. The Nazis were able to establish a legal reign of terror.

Thanks largely to this, they and the Nationalists won a bare majority at the general election on March 5th; and, thereafter, first the Communist party, and then all parties other than the National Socialist, were made illegal. The burning of the Reichstag was the vital preliminary to Hitler’s dictatorship.

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