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When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.

 


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After 75 years, justice for Marinus

14 January 2008

In 1967 a West German court reduced Marinus van de Lubbe’s 1933 sentence for arson and treason to a prison term of eight years. In 1980 the same court lifted the sentence entirely, but the German federal court reversed this decision. The next year another court overturned the original conviction on the grounds that van der Lubbe was insane.

None of which mattered much to Marinus van der Lubbe himself because he was, in fact, very dead, having been guillotined in 1934. They do things differently in Germany.

And the crime? In what became became one of the turning points of world history, Marinus van der Lubbe was convicted of setting fire to the Reichstag – the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic’s parliament.

And now, 75 years after the event, van der Lubbe’s conviction has been overturned by the German federal prosecutor under a 1998 law that allows pardons for people convicted of crimes under the Nazi regime.

In 1933, Marinus van der Lubbe was twenty-four. He had joined the Dutch Communist Party in 1925 and shortly afterwards lost seventy-five per cent of his eyesight in an industrial accident. In 1927 he moved to Germany and became active amongst the unemployed while his politics moved increasingly towards anarchism. By then he was quite clearly psychologically disturbed and probably ripe for manipulation.

There has never been any doubt that Hitler cynically used the Reichstag fire as a pretext for assuming dictatorial power, rounding up his Social Democrat, Communist and trade union enemies, and setting Germany on the road towards militarisation. Historians, however, have long argued over whether the Nazis themselves set fire to the building, using van der Lubbe as the patsy, or whether they opportunistically made use of the act of a desperate loner.

Was it, in other words, a government-sponsored false-flag operation? Since 2001 the answer has been, almost certainly, yes.

In 1990, 50,000 pages of German court, government and Gestapo files – located both in East Germany and Moscow, became available to a team of researchers, principally the historian Alexander Bahar and physicist and psychologist Wilfreid Kugel who spent a decade carefully reviewing the material before publishing The Reichstag Fire – How History is Created, in 2001.

Using an authoritative array of circumstantial evidence, Bahar and Kugel reconstructed the Reichstag fire operation:

On February 27, 1933, at about 8:00 p.m. a commando group of at least 3, and at most 10 SA men [Brownshirts] led by Hans Georg Gewehr entered the basement of the palace of the Reichstag President. The group took the incendiary substances deposited there, and used the subterranean passageway to go from the Reichstag President’s palace to the Reichstag building, where they prepared the assembly hall in particular with a self-igniting liquid they probably mixed in the hall. After a certain latency period, the liquid set off the fire in the assembly hall. The group made their getaway through the subterranean passageway and the basement of the Reichstag President’s palace (and possibly also through the adjacent basement leading to the machinery and government employees’ building) to the public street ‘Reichstagsufer.’ [Reich President Hermann] Göring entered the burning Reichstag building at 9:21 p.m. at the latest, presumably in order to provide a cover for the commando group’s retreat.

Van der Lubbe was brought to the Reichstag by the SA at exactly 9:00 p.m. and let into the building by them. The sound of breaking glass which was noticed by witnesses and which was allegedly due to van der Lubbe breaking window panes to get into the building was probably only intended to attract the attention of the public.

Just three hours before the Reichstag fire, the head of the political police (and subsequently of the notorious Gestapo), Rudolf Diels, had sent a telegram to all police stations in Prussia warning them of a plan by communists to raid police stations and “nationalist associations” (a euphemism for Nazi Party armed squads) and disarm them. The police were to take “suitable countermeasures” and arrest communist functionaries.

There was, of course, no such communist plot, but thousands were arrested and all left-wing newspapers were closed down. Two days after the fire, two decrees annulled the essential basic rights incorporated in the constitution of the Weimar Republic. They stayed in effect until the collapse of the Third Reich and formed the pseudo-legal basis for the Nazi dictatorship. Hitler seized the opportunity to undermine the once-powerful German working class movement and prepare its destruction. This was a critically important step because Reichstag elections had been scheduled for March 5, 1933, and a Nazi election victory was not a foregone conclusion.

Under torture, van der Lubbe confessed to setting the fires but the scientific experts were agreed that the job must have been the work of more than one person. This was fine by the Nazis, because they wanted to implicate the Communist Party.

When the matter came to trial the former chairman of the Communist Party’s Reichstag parliamentary group and three Bulgarian communists living illegally in Germany were charged along with van der Lubbe. The young Dutchman was found guilty but, in a last display of German judicial independence, the four communists were acquitted. This was a major embarrassment, but it hardly mattered because the Nazis, who had never won near a majority in any federal election, were now firmly entrenched in power.

And the rest, as they say, is history.