Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Reichstag fire

History Today reminds us that today is the anniversary of the Reichstag fire: February 27, 1933. For some reason the video starts with a note in Hungarian. It says:
The Destruction of the Reichstag
The seat of the German national assembly and one of Berlin's most beautiful Italianate renaissance palaces has become the victim of Communist arson. 
The blog continues:
Coming less than a month after Hitler became Chancellor, the attack was used as evidence of a growing Communist plot against the German government. van der Lubbe was tried, found guilty and executed the next year. Several other Communist leaders were also tried, and acquitted. But the fire was the precursor to a total seizure of power by the Nazis, who began to systematically dismantle Germany's democratic institutions and victimise their political opponents. The real identity of those responsible for the fire remains topic of much discussion amongst historians.
It's an odd way of putting it, the implication being that van der Lubbe was a Communist leader as well, which he most definitely was not. But it definitely was used by Hitler to seize total control and to suppress the Communist party (not that it had put up much of a fight).

It was also used by the Communists to promote their own propaganda, a far more successful enterprise in the end. As I wrote in a long piece a while ago, entitled The big lie or many small lies:
Here is an interesting question for all our readers? Who burnt down the Reichstag in 1933? Can you recall the name of Marinus van der Lubbe, the somewhat crazed Dutchman, who actually set it on fire? And even if you can, do you not think that there was somebody behind it all? After all, it could not be just a lone lunatic?

It would be interesting to know how many of those who read the above paragraph nodded and said: “Of course, Hitler ordered and manipulated van der Lubbe (assuming you can recall the name) and then used the fire to get rid of the opposition and to blame the Communists.”

I am willing to bet that nobody said: “Oh yes, it was the Communists and they managed to get away with it because Dimitrov’s trial (assuming you can recall that name) was unsuccessful. Hitler merely took advantage of the event.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between good and bad propaganda.
I am rather proud of that piece and, quite shamelessly, recommend that people read it.


  1. And so I did - very informative.

    It reminded me that my German teacher ( a thoroughly decent sort) had the opinion in 1959 or thereabouts that Senator McCarthy was a beastly, bullying, quasi Hitlerian character. So the Muenzenberg technique had certainly worked with him.

  2. Has worked with most people. McCarthy was, in fact, a thoroughly unpleasant man but his accusations were mostly accurate. Yet, McCarthyism is still seen as the worst, the very worst kind of oppression anyone can imagine.