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90 years on

Conspiracy? The Reichstag Fire of February 27, 1933

February 27 marks the 90 year anniversary of the Reichstag Fire, the event which paved the way for Nazi rule in Germany.

Photo: IMAGO/ZUMA/Keystone

On February 27, 1933, a fire devastated the Reichstag building in Berlin. Despite efforts to save the building, the building was devastated. Hitler, the new chancellor of Germany, immediately took advantage of this disaster and laid the blame on the communists – the resulting atmosphere of fear, chaos and paranoia would be crucial for the creation of the Nazi terror state.

Origins of the Reichstag building

The Reichstag building was originally constructed as a meeting place for the parliament of the German Empire, or Imperial Diet. Before the construction of the new building, the Imperial Diet met in the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur at Leipziger Straße 4.

The architect of the Reichstag building was Paul Wallot, who took inspiration from the Memorial Hall building in Philadelphia, built in 1876. The building work took place between 1884 and 1894 and, although the building was initially criticised for its wanton mix of architectural styles, the steel and glass dome was considered a great engineering achievement.

The Memorial Hall in Philadelphia, USA was the inspiration for the Reichstag Building. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, PA-1659-1
The Reichstag building around the turn of the century. Photo: Public Domain
The Reichstag building and the Victory Column: the great symbols of Imperial Germany. Photo: Public Domain

The plan of Reichstag tried to walk a fine line. On the one hand, it wanted to honour new, liberal ideals while on the other it sought to projecting the strength and might of the German Empire. Modelling the architectural design after a building in Philadelphia was a clear nod to the liberals, and in 1916 the famous inscription was added to the façade: Dem deutschen Volke, or “to the German People”.

Dem deutschen Volke: To the German People. A symbol of the young nation’s democratic aspirations. Photo: IMAGO/imagebroker
A monumental statue of Bismarck, meant to show off the power of the Empire. Photo: IMAGO/imagebroker
A meeting of Germany’s parliament, or Reichstag, in 1926. Photo: IMAGO/imagebroker

Imperial motifs such as crowns and eagles were also plastered on the building – and a huge, imposing statue of Bismarck, the Empire’s great strongman, loomed over the entranceway. The conflicting philosophies of the new German state were reflected in the building but, if it seems that the liberals had won with the creation of the Weimar Republic in 1918, their victory would be short lived.

The fire

Shortly after 9pm on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag fire began. It only took a few hours for firefighters to extinguish the fire, but the damage was extensive. Authorities found bundles of flammable material amongst the smoldering ruins, and the fire was immediately deemed an act of arson. Quickly, a 24-year-old Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested: he admitted to setting the fire – but maintained that he’d acted alone.

The fire illuminated the night of February 27. Photo: IMAGO/United Archives International
The firehoses used in the attempt to put out the fire. Photo: IMAGO/piemags

At the time of the fire, the young Weimar Republic was already in peril. Exactly four weeks prior to the blaze, Adolf Hitler had been appointed to the position of chancellor in an attempt by the political establishment to both control and subdue the Nazi movement and to assuage the growing popularity of the communists; the 1932 election had actually seen Nazi support decrease in comparison to their left-wing enemies.

The ruins of the Reichstag building. Hitler used images like this to drum up support. Photo: IMAGO/piemags
Authorities survey the damage. Photo: IMAGO/United Archives International
Hitler at the crime scene on the night of the fire. Photo: IMAGO/piemags

When the fire broke out, Hitler was dining with Goebbels in Berlin. Both men rushed to the scene sensing a golden opportunity. Immediately, the propaganda machine got to work: the fire was a “sign from God” that the communists and Bolsheviks were on the verge of a widespread communist revolt; only fascist political control could secure Germany from Communist revolution.

The widespread fear stoked by Hitler and his allies opened the door for President Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree. This new law ended most civil liberties in Germany – effectively paving the way for Hitler’s one-party rule of the state. The Nazi takeover was cemented with the Enabling Act, passed a month later, which gave Hitler dictatorial powers. As the result of the blaze, both the Reichstag and the republic went up in smoke.

The trial of van der Lubbe (in black, standing to right) in September, 1933. Photo: IMAGO/KHARBINE-TAPABOR

Despite the fact that van der Lubbe claimed to have acted alone, thousands of communists were imprisoned following the fire, including Ernst Torgler, the Communist Party (KPD) leader. Van der Lubbe, Torgler, and other notable communists were tried in September 1933, but to Hitler’s furor, only van der Lubbe was sentenced to death: the rest were acquitted and expelled to the Soviet Union.


The Reichstag Fire was a turning point in history. Before February 27, the Nazis were losing seats in the parliament, and the communists were on the rise. After February 27, Hitler had managed to destroy the communist party, strip the people of civil liberties and pave the way for totalitarian control. It would be a stroke of incredibly good luck for the Nazis to have been handed this opportunity on a platter. This all poses the question: were Nazi officials in on it? Did van der Lubbe really act alone?

were Nazi officials in on it? Did van der Lubbe really act alone?

Actually, the majority of modern scholars believe van der Lubbe acted alone. This is evidenced by the fact that Nazi officials seemed to be surprised by the fire, and that van der Lubbe was found at the scene of the crime and confessed to acting alone. This consensus view has been in place since the 1960s, when former intelligence officer Fritz Tobias published a major book on the Reichstag Fire.

And yet, questions remain. How could van der Lubbe, who was partially blind from an accident, have singlehandedly burned the entire Reichstag to the ground? Additionally, a letter from a chemist who was on the scene of the crime noted that the building had been prepared with a fluid accelerant. How could all this have been done by one half-blind 24 year old Dutch communist?

Marinus van der Lubbe at his trial in 1933. Photo: IMAGO/ZUMA/Keystone

The Reichstag since the fire

The Reichstag building remained unused after the fire and throughout the war, sustaining still more damage during the Battle of Berlin. On the 2 May 1945, Red Army soldiers finally hoisted the hammer and sickle over the ruins of the once building in one of the most potent symbols of the German defeat.

Red Army soldiers flying the Soviet flag on the Reichstag. Photo: Public Domain

Following the war, the Reichstag building was in such a state of disrepair that West German officials held debates on whether to demolish the structure but, in 1956, the authorities decided on restoration – but even then, the building remained unused: the West German Bundestag assembled in Bonn, the capital of West Germany, while the East German Volkskammer met in the Palace of the Republic on Museum Island.

The Reichstag building after WWII. Photo: IMAGO/United Archives
The building in 1970 after the first round of restorations. Photo: Roger Wallstadt/Wikimedia Commons

It was only after German reunification that it was decided that the Reichstag building would once again be the seat of the German parliament. The restorations were finally completed by 1999, over one hundred years after the original construction of the building and nearly 70 years after the last time a parliamentary body gathered in the structure.

the Reichstag is a monument to the very worst and the very best of the German state.

Today, the Reichstag is the second-most visited site in Germany. Many of the original sculptures, monuments and symbols have been removed – but the inscription remains. Dem deutchen Volke. It remains a monument to the various crises of the twentieth century and to various transformations Germany has undergone.