The government ablaze

The Reichstag fire occurred on 27th February 1933, in Berlin, Germany.

It was a crucial event in the history of Germany and had far-reaching implications for the country and the world.

The fire was set to the German Parliament building, the Reichstag, and was used as a pretext by the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, to suspend civil liberties, arrest political opponents, and consolidate power in the hands of the Nazi Party.

The Reichstag, Germany's seat of parliament, in 1930.

© German Historical Museum, Berlin

LeMO object - Reichstag, around 1930 (

A Dutch communist

The cause of the fire is still debated to this day, but the official version of events was that it was started by a young Dutch communist, Marinus van der Lubbe who was arrested at the scene. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that the fire was actually started by the Nazis themselves as a means of creating a crisis that would justify their seizure of power.

Marinus van der Lubbe was born in the Dutch city of Leiden in 1909. He became involved with the labour movement while working as a bricklayer; in 1925, at the age of 16, he joined the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) and its youth wing, the Communist Youth Bund (CJB).

He was politically active in the unemployed workers' movement until 1931, when he broke with the CPN and approached the Group of International Communists instead. Van der Lubbe fled to Germany in 1933 to join the local communist underground. He had a criminal record for several previous arson attempts.

Marinus van der Lubbe (1909-1934). Photograph taken by the German police shortly after his arrest, February. 1933.

Public domain

The Reichstag fire

On 27th February 1933, shortly after 9 p.m., The sound of breaking glass was heard by pedestrians near the Reichstag. The building was soon engulfed in flames and firefighters were dispatched.

Despite their efforts, the fire raged for over two hours and was not put out until 11:30 p.m. The majority of the building was destroyed including the debating chamber and the Reichstag's gilded cupola.

Overall, the inferno caused over $1 million in damage.

The ruins were inspected by firefighters and police, who discovered 20 bundles of flammable material (firelighters) lying around. Hitler was having dinner with Joseph Goebbels at Goebbels' apartment in Berlin at the time the fire was reported. When Goebbels received a phone call informing him of the fire, he initially dismissed it as a "tall tale" and hung up.

Only after the second call did he inform Hitler of the news. Both left Goebbels' apartment and arrived at the Reichstag by car just as the fire was extinguished. Hermann Göring, Prussia's Interior Minister, met them at the site and told Hitler, "This is communist outrage! One of the communist perpetrators has been apprehended."

Hitler referred to the fire as a "sign from God," claiming it signalled the start of a communist revolt. The next day, the Prussian Press Service breathlessly reported that "this act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany".

The newspaper Vossische Zeitung ominously warned its readers that "the government is of the opinion that the situation is such that a danger to the state and nation existed and still exists."

At the time of the Reichstag fire on 27th February 1933, Walter Gempp was the head of the Berlin fire department, personally directing the operations.

On 25th March he was fired for presenting evidence implying Nazi involvement in the fire. Gempp claimed that there had been a delay in notifying the fire department and that he had been barred from fully utilising the resources at his disposal.

Gempp was arrested for abuse of office in 1937. He was imprisoned despite his appeal. On 2nd May 1939, Gempp was strangled and murdered in prison.

A firefighter standing in the ruins of the burnt out Reichstag building.

The Wiener Holocaust Library

The Reichstag Fire – The Holocaust Explained: Designed for schools

Damage to the interior of the Reichstag after the fire.

Nazi reaction

President Hindenburg signed the Reichstag Fire Decree into law the day after the fire, at Hitler's request, using Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. Most civil liberties in Germany were suspended by the Reichstag Fire Decree, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, and postal and telephone secrecy. During the Nazi regime, these rights were not restored. The Nazis used the decree to outlaw publications that were not "friendly" to the Nazi cause.

Despite the fact that Marinus van der Lubbe claimed to have acted alone in the Reichstag fire, Hitler declared that it was the beginning of a larger communist effort to take over Germany after obtaining emergency powers. This fabricated "news" was then published in Nazi Party newspapers. This frightened the German people and further isolated communists among the civilians; additionally, thousands of communists (including leaders of the Communist Party of Germany) were imprisoned in the days following the fire on the charge that the Party was planning a putsch (coup).

Ernst Thaelmann, leader of the German Communist Party, was detained during a mass arrest of Communists following the fire that virtually destroyed the Reichstag (German parliament) building. Germany, date uncertain.

DIZ Muenchen GMBH, Sueddeutscher Verlag Bilderdienst

Political Prisoners | Holocaust Encyclopedia (

Ernst Thalmann In Color by pollitkalyMarx5 on DeviantArt

A poster from the March 1933 elections. The bottom half of the poster reads ‘The more power you give Hitler, the easier he will win and the more independent you make him from the parties that led the people to where they are today. You gave these parties 14 years to ruin Germany! Give Hitler four years to rebuild it! You give Hitler power and time by voting HITLER!

The Wiener Holocaust Library

The Reichstag Fire – The Holocaust Explained: Designed for schools

During the Reichstag fire, Hitler told Rudolph Diels about communists "These sub-humans do not understand how the people stand at our side. In their mouse-holes, out of which they now want to come, of course they hear nothing of the cheering of the masses." 

With communist electoral participation suppressed (the communists previously polled 17% of the vote), the Nazis increased their share of the vote from 33% to 44% in the Reichstag elections on 5 March 1933. This gave the Nazis and their allies, the German National People's Party (which received 8% of the vote), a Reichstag majority of 52%.

While the Nazis won a majority, they fell short of their goal of winning 50-55% of the vote that year. The Nazis feared that this would make passage of the Enabling Act, which granted Hitler the right to rule by decree and required a two-thirds majority, more difficult. However, several important factors weighed in the Nazis' favour, most notably the Communist Party's continued suppression and the Nazis' ability to capitalise on national security concerns. Furthermore, due to arrests and intimidation by the Nazi SA, some Social Democratic Party deputies (the only party that would vote against the Enabling Act) were prevented from taking their seats in the Reichstag.

SA Member Arrests Communists

©Topfoto/ The Image Works

SA Member Arrests Communists | Facing History and Ourselves

As a result, the Social Democratic Party would be significantly under-represented in the final vote count. On 23rd March 1933, the Enabling Act was easily passed with the support of the right-wing German National People's Party, the Centre Party, and several fragmented middle-class parties. The law went into effect on 24th March effectively making Hitler the dictator of Germany.

For the remaining 12 years of the Third Reich's existence, the Kroll Opera House, located across the Königsplatz from the burned-out Reichstag building, served as the Reichstag's venue.


The trial of Marinus van der Lubbe was held in 1933 but was widely seen as a sham and a political show, as the verdict was predetermined by the Nazi regime and the proceedings were heavily influenced by political considerations.

Despite the lack of concrete evidence linking van der Lubbe to the fire, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading. Van der Lubbe was guillotined in a Leipzig prison yard on 10th January 1934 three days before his 25th birthday. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Leipzig.

Georgi Dimitrov (left), Vassili Tanev (Centre) and Simon Popov (Right) where charged as Co-conspirators with Lubbe although all three were acquitted.

Four other defendants tried with Lubbe - Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoy Popov, and Vassili Tanev - were luckier: they were acquitted of the charges.

The Nazis already had their scapegoat.

The trial was widely criticized by many at the time and has since been seen as a prime example of the injustice and political manipulation that characterized the Nazi regime.

Ernst Torgler, chairman of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was arrested after the Reichstag Fire although later acquitted due to lack of evidence.

Duitsland - World war 2 weetjes! (

Marinus van der Lubbe (centre, with head lowered), a Dutchman charged with setting the Reichstag fire, shown in a courtroom in Leipzig, Germany, December 23, 1933.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Ernst Torgler (second from left) and Marinus van der Lubbe (head down) are flanked by German guards while receiving the verdict in the Reichstag (Berlin) arson trial, 23rd December 1933.

International reaction

The international reaction to the Reichstag fire was mixed. Some countries, such as the Soviet Union, were sympathetic to the German Communist Party and believed that the fire was part of a larger plot by the Nazis.

Other countries, including the United States, were more skeptical and saw the events as evidence of the growing authoritarianism of the Nazi regime.

The international media were quick to recognise the significance and impact of the Reichstag fire.

Reichstag fire in 1933... -


The aftermath of the Reichstag fire was significant for Germany and the world. Hitler and the Nazi Party used the fire to justify the passage of the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the power to rule by decree and effectively made him a dictator.

The fire also marked the beginning of the end of German democracy and the establishment of the Nazi regime, which would go on to cause immense suffering and devastation in Europe and around the world.

The Reichstag fire was a pivotal moment in German and world history.

Its causes and aftermath have been the subject of much debate and speculation, and its legacy remains relevant to this day as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked political power and the importance of protecting civil liberties and democratic institutions.

Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany. The Reichstag Fire enabled him to tighten his grip on power in Germany.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA

Adolf Hitler - The Holocaust History - A People's and Survivor History -

Post war

West Germany's parliament was relocated to Bonn after the war, and the building remained a virtual ruin until 1961, when it is partially renovated in the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall. This contentious restoration, completed in 1964, removed the majority of the building's statuary from the interior and exterior. However, the city tried to preserve relics of its recent history, such as the bullet-riddled façade and graffiti left by occupying Soviet soldiers.

Throughout the Cold War and until German reunification in 1989, the Reichstag housed a permanent exhibition called "Questions about German History," but it was only used for ceremonial purposes, and it hosted the official reunification ceremony in 1990. Norman Foster's meticulous restoration and redesign of the building was completed in 1999, and the new German government met for the first time at the Reichstag on April 19th.

The restored Reichstag today.

Artfully Media/Sven Christian Schramm

Reichstag in Berlin: German Bundestag |


Further reading


Artfully Media/Sven Christian Schramm

Benjamin Carter Hett, American historian and author of "The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic".

Susanne Falter-Wagner, German historian and author of "The Reichstag Fire: 1933."

Christopher Browning, American historian and author of "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland".

William L. Shirer, American journalist and author of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich".

Benjamin Carter Hett, American historian and author of "The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic".