Late Justice for Nazi Scapegoat Verdict against 1933 Reichstag Arsonist Thrown Out

The verdict against the Dutch bricklayer executed for setting the 1933 Reichstag fire that led to Adolf Hitler's stranglehold on power in Germany was tossed out on Thursday. But who started the fire remains a mystery.

The flames were already pouring out of the Reichstag on the evening of February 27, 1933, when Chancellor Adolf Hitler was first notified of an arson attack. He rushed to the site of the fire -- Germany's parliament building in Berlin -- perhaps aware that the blaze would help him tighten his hold on power. By the time he got there, police had arrested a suspect.

Marinus van der Lubbe, an unemployed bricklayer from Holland, was found inside the building and confessed to setting the blaze. At his trial he claimed he had acted alone and committed the arson to mobilize Germany's workers in a revolution against the Nazi-controlled state. He was convicted later that year and decapitated in Jan. 1934.

Now, 74 years after his execution, the German federal prosecutor has thrown out the verdict. The court said it was notified by a Berlin lawyer that a 1998 law rehabilitating those convicted of crimes by the Nazis should be applied to van der Lubbe as well. His conviction was overturned, prosecutors say, because his execution resulted from Nazi laws "that were created to implement the National Socialist regime and enabled breaches of basic conceptions of justice."

German law did not allow for arsonists to be sentenced to death when van der Lubbe allegedly set the Reichstag blaze. Only an emergency decree passed the next day -- and made retroactive to include the Dutch bricklayer -- cleared the way for his eventual death.

Long Debate Over van der Lubbe

The case has been debated by historians and legal experts for decades. Many assume the Nazis were intimately involved in the blaze, a position bolstered by the benefits Hitler's NSDAP reaped from the crime.

Within hours of the fire, Hitler's propaganda guru, Joseph Goebbels, along with Nazi bigwig Hermann Göring, had sent bulletins across Germany and around the world: the communists, according to their newsflash, were trying to start a revolution. The country had to act quickly to prevent it.

The next day, at the behest of Göring -- and on the strength of his tale of a coming revolution -- the cabinet handed police powers over to Adolf Hitler, a move rubber-stamped by aging German President Paul von Hindenburg. A wave of arrests targeting Communist Party parliamentarians and activists began. They were locked away in hastily erected prisons that would eventually grow into Nazi Germany's notorious network of concentration camps.

A week later, general elections were held. The vote was planned from the outset as a way to consolidate Hitler's power. Though he was named Chancellor on the strength of 1932 elections, he still lacked an absolute majority in the Reichstag. He didn't get one in March 1933 either, but by criminalizing the Communist Party on the strength of the post-fire decrees and by patching together a right-wing coalition, the Nazis managed to vote the parliament into insignificance, clearing the way for Hitler's dictatorship.

The speed of Hitler's seizure of power has led many to suspect the Nazis were behind the fire. There was also a tunnel connecting the Reichstag with the presidential palace, where Hitler, Göring and Goebbels were dining that evening. A longstanding theory holds that Nazi goons prepared the building for van der Lubbe's fire. A 1959 story in DER SPIEGEL, however, contradicts that version of events.

The Reichstag stood mostly empty for decades following the fire and only became the home to Germany's parliament again in 1999.


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