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

Overview


In February 1933, Adolf Hitler had only a tenuous grasp on power. Chancellor of Germany for merely four weeks, he led a fragile coalition government. The Nazis had lost seats in the Reichstag in the recent election, and claimed only three of thirteen cabinet posts. Then on February 27th, arson sent the Reichstag, the home and symbol of German democracy, up in flames. Immediately blaming the Communists, Hitler's new government approved a decree that tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar ...
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Burning the Reichstag: An Investigation into the Third Reich's Enduring Mystery

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Overview


In February 1933, Adolf Hitler had only a tenuous grasp on power. Chancellor of Germany for merely four weeks, he led a fragile coalition government. The Nazis had lost seats in the Reichstag in the recent election, and claimed only three of thirteen cabinet posts. Then on February 27th, arson sent the Reichstag, the home and symbol of German democracy, up in flames. Immediately blaming the Communists, Hitler's new government approved a decree that tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic and cancelled the rule of law. Five thousand people were immediately arrested. The Reichstag fire marked the true beginning of the Third Reich, which ruled for 12 more years. The controversy surrounding the fire's origins has endured for 80.

In Burning the Reichstag, Benjamin Hett offers a gripping account of Hitler's rise to dictatorship-one that challenges orthodoxy and recovers the true significance of the part the fire played. At the scene the police arrested 23-year-old Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch Communist stonemason. Though he was initially dismissed abroad as a Nazi tool, post-war historians since the 1950s have largely judged him solely guilty-a lone arsonist exploited by Hitler. Hett's book reopens the case, providing vivid portraits of key figures, including Rudolf Diels, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and the historian Fritz Tobias, whose account of the fire has, until now, been the standard. Making use of a number of new sources and archives, Hett sets the Reichstag fire in a wider context, revealing how and why it has remained one of the last mysteries of the Nazi period, and one of the most controversial and contested events in the 20th century.

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  • Author Benjamin Carter Hett
    Author Benjamin Carter Hett  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/23/2013
Historian Hett (Crossing Hitler) applies his dual expertise as a scholar and former trial lawyer to reopen discussion of an aspect of Nazi Germany widely considered settled: who set the Reichstag on fire in 1933? The research of such historians as Fritz Tobias and Hans Mommsen have contributed to a general consensus that the fire, which inaugurated the final stage of Hitler’s seizure of power, was the work of one man: Dutch Communist Martinus van der Lubbe. This was as the Nazis claimed—that the fire was the work of the Comintern. But the Communists contended that the arson was linked to the Nazis, and the issue is still debated today. Hett, using fresh sources and archives, presents a nuanced and complex perspective. In his telling, the fire emerges as “a tale launched, shaped, and reshaped by power and interest,” right down to the present day. Hett painstakingly reconstructs the roots of the “rival narratives” about the fire that “snapped into place literally overnight.” He is equally precise in demonstrating the dynamics of van der Lubbe’s trial (ultimately, he was beheaded), and in raising the still-opaque question of direct Nazi involvement in the fire’s setting. Hett’s major contribution is his analysis of the trial as a case study in “a particular constellation of political pressure and the state of knowledge of Nazi crimes” in West Germany during the 1950s and 60s. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

"Impressive piece of work that presents fresh evidence."--Richard J. Evans, London Review of Books

"Historian Hett (Crossing Hitler) applies his dual expertise as a scholar and former trial lawyer to reopen discussion of an aspect of Nazi Germany widely considered settled: who set the Reichstag on fire in 1933? Hett, using fresh sources and archives, presents a nuanced and complex perspective. Hett's major contribution is his analysis of the trial as a case study in "a particular constellation of political pressure and the state of knowledge of Nazi crimes" in West Germany during the 1950s and 60s." --Publishers Weekly

"Hett carefully sifts the record, examining the many contradictory accounts. This painstaking new examination of evidence surrounding the Reichstag fire lays blame squarely with the ascendant Nazis and underscores deeper notions about nationalism, complicity and guilt." --Kirkus

"The extensive empirical investigations contained in BURNING THE REICHSTAG are an example of the historian¹s craft in the very best sense, and have certainly shaken my confidence in the standard interpretation of the event. It is difficult after reading Hett¹s remarkable book to see van der Lubbe as the sole responsible figure, and equally difficult not to conclude that the Nazis may well have been involved in the arson. Hett¹s discussion of the development of post-1945 opinions about the Reichstag fire is particularly compelling, and provides a second, major reinterpretation of German history." --Jonathan Sperber, Curators' Professor of History, University of Missouri, and author of Karl Marx, A Nineteenth-Century Life

"The definitive account of one of the most mysterious events in the history of the Third Reich. Persuasive and highly readable." --Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther novels

"Fifty years ago, historians endorsed new tightly argued findings that contrary to the widely believed earlier version, a single mentally deficient Dutch perpetrator and not a cabal of Nazis had set the Reichstag ablaze in February 1933-the infamous fire that allowed the recently installed National Socialist leaders to suspend constitutional rights and rapidly consolidate their dictatorship. Now in a profound reexamination of the original evidence, investigation of the witnesses, and exploration of postwar West German tendencies to blur responsibilities, Benjamin Hett, a historian of spectacular German trials and a trained lawyer, argues that in fact Nazi activists had to have staged the arson. Burning the Reichstag will be controversial but it certainly commands our serious reading and respect." --Charles S. Maier, Harvard University

"Based on amazing historical detective work, Hett's book skillfully interweaves three narratives: the story of what happened on the night of the Reichstag fire; the story of the Nazi-era investigations, trial, and cover-ups; and the story of how the 'single culprit' thesis became the dominant interpretation after the war. His elegantly argued analysis not only makes a compelling case that the Reichstag fire was set by the Nazis but provides new insight into the forces that shaped how the history of the Third Reich was written in postwar West Germany." --Richard F. Wetzell, German Historical Institute, Washington DC

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-20
A fresh investigation into responsibility for the Reichstag fire, from historian and former trial lawyer Hett (History/Hunter Coll.; Crossing Hitler: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand, 2008, etc.). The fire broke out on the night of February 27,1933, just a few weeks after Hitler became chancellor; the hysteria created by the Nazis around it, blaming the communists, allowed him a convenient way to dissolve civil liberties, persecute his enemies (lists had already been drawn up) and launch the beginning of the Nazi police state. In the flaming building, one crazed Dutch-German émigré, Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested and confessed to being the lone arson, yet experts then and now are fairly convinced that such a fast-moving fire could not have been set without the aid of flammable substances like kerosene, which van der Lubbe did not possess. Hett carefully sifts the record, examining the many contradictory accounts by witnesses, firemen, police, government leaders, Nazis, communists and prisoners, at the time of the fire, as well as the subsequent trial of van der Lubbe and three Bulgarian Communists picked up as accomplices (the latter three were acquitted). The author also follows the story for many years following the event, after denazification had prompted the altering of public opinion and cleansed personal records. These denazified ex-officials received new life with the publication of Fritz Tobias' Der Spiegel articles in the winter of 1959-60, in which he argued for the lone arson theory and absolved Hitler and the Nazis of plotting the fire for political gain. Tobias' account was accepted ever since as the "dominant narrative," at least in Germany, now challenged with authority by Hett. This painstaking new examination of evidence surrounding the Reichstag fire lays blame squarely with the ascendant Nazis and underscores deeper notions about nationalism, complicity and guilt.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199322329
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 1/3/2014
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 692,552
  • Product dimensions: 11.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Benjamin Carter Hett, a former trial lawyer and professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of Death in the Tiergarten and Crossing Hitler, winner of the Fraenkel Prize.

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Table of Contents

Prologue I: Hannover, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Prologue II: Berlin, Monday, February 27, 1933
Chapter 1: "Satanic Nose": Rudolf Diels
Chapter 2: "SA + Me": Joseph Goebbels
Chapter 3: "What Just Went On Here is an Absolute Outrage": Rumors
Chapter 4: "Those Who Know Nothing Are Better Off": The Investigation
Chapter 5: "Stand Up, van der Lubbe!" The Trial and What Followed
Chapter 6: "Nuremberg History": The Prosecutors' Tale
Chapter 7: "Persil Letters": The Gestapists' Tale
Chapter 8: "The Feared One": Fritz Tobias and His "Clients"
Chapter 9: "Snow From Yesterday": Blackmail and the Institute for Contemporary History
Epilogue: Decadence of a Controversy

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