Lies that refuse to be buried
On the anniversary of the 1933 Reichstag fire, Bob Potter looks back at the trial of Marinus van der Lubbe and Georgi Dimitrov
Watching a history programme on TV’s digital channels can be both irritating and frustrating. For me, a repeat broadcast of films, comments and discussion related to the Reichstag fire trial proved a case in point. Stalinist misrepresentations, manufactured at the time, continue to be presented as ‘possible options’ ...
In the early evening of February 27 1933, less than a month after Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor, the debating chamber of the Reichstag burst into flames - an event destined to find a prominent place in world history. There was no great mystery about the fire: soon after the blaze was spotted, firemen and police entered the building and promptly arrested a young man attempting to escape. He was searched and found in possession of three items - a pocket-knife, a wallet and a passport. “Why did you do it?” he was asked. “As a protest,” replied the Dutch bricklayer, Marinus van der Lubbe, who gave the arresting officers a coherent account of his actions during that night - purchasing firelighters in a local store, several unsuccessful attempts to start fires in four public buildings, succeeding only when he broke a window and entered the deserted Reichstag.
Here are extracts from van der Lubbe’s statement to the police of March 3 1933:
“In Holland I read that the National Socialists had come to power in Germany. I have always followed German politics with keen interest ... when Hitler took over I expected much enthusiasm for him, but also much tension ... I myself am a leftist and was a member of the Communist Party until 1929. What I did not like about the party is the way they lord it over the workers, instead of letting the workers decide for themselves ... The masses themselves must decide what they ought to do and what they ought not to do.
“In Germany a national coalition has now been formed, and I think it holds two dangers: (1) it oppresses the workers, and (2) ... it is bound to lead to war. I watched on for a few days and then I decided to go to Germany and see for myself .... I started in Düsseldorf, where I spoke to workers in the street. I did the same thing in other towns. In Berlin, I also studied the pamphlets of the various parties and then went to the welfare offices in Lichtenberg, Wedding and Neukölln. I also went to the labour exchange ... I found out that, whereas the national coalition has complete freedom in Germany, the workers have not.
“Now, what the workers’ organisations are doing is not likely to rouse the workers to the struggle for freedom ... that is the reason why I asked the workers to demonstrate. But all I was told was to take the matter to the party ... But I heard that a Communist Party demonstration was disbanded by the leaders on the approach of the police, and that the people listened to these leaders instead of carrying out their own resolutions. I realised then that the workers will do nothing by themselves, that they will do nothing against a system which grants freedom to one side and metes out oppression to the other. In my opinion something absolutely had to be done in protest against this system.
“Since the workers would do nothing, I had to do something by myself. I considered arson a suitable method ... something that belonged to the system itself: official buildings - the welfare office for example, for that is a building in which the workers come together; or the city hall, because it is a building belonging to the system; and further the palace, because it lies in the centre of the city, and if it goes up, the huge flames can be seen from far away ... When these three fires failed to come off - that is to say, when my protest did not come off - I decided on the Reichstag as the centre of the whole system ... As to the question whether I acted alone, I declare emphatically that this was the case. No-one at all helped me, nor did I meet a single person in the Reichstag.”
The chief police investigator, detective-inspector Dr Walter Zirpins, added his own observations to the final report:
“He is endowed with a great deal of (admittedly very one-sided) intelligence and, appearances to the contrary, he is a very bright fellow. His grasp of the German language is so good that he can follow even finer shades of meanings, though his own speech is slurred. Thus he could not only follow the examination but remember entire sentences and repeat them word for word. Especially during the discussion of his motives he kept correcting those phrases which, he thought, did not fully reflect his real meaning ... in short he had no need of an interpreter.”
The prisoner willingly accompanied the police officers back to the Reichstag to re-enact his earlier visit, leading them all the way. His ‘journey’ at the crime scene was monitored by stopwatch, leaving his companions convinced he was telling the truth in every detail. (Van der Lubbe told police his ‘detailed memory’ developed consequential to his very poor eyesight - worthy of mention, as he was deprived of his glasses for early court sessions!).
Although his account made good sense to the investigators, his insistence on ‘acting alone’ throughout suited neither Nazis nor communists. Foreign reporters present at the burning building when Hitler arrived were convinced the fuhrer had been caught completely by surprise: he immediately declared his “suspicion” it was the “opening phase” of a planned communist uprising; Ernst Torgler, leader of the KPD in the Reichstag, and three Bulgarian communists were promptly arrested (Georgi Dimitrov, chief European representative of the Comintern being amongst them, although the Nazis were unaware of his international role).
The arrested communists insisted the fire had been instigated and orchestrated by the Nazis themselves, to justify police raids on the offices of opposition parties, along with wider excesses by their brown-shirted thugs, aimed at anti-fascist groupings and trades union; and prompt repressive legislation (the ‘enabling acts’ - the first promulgated the day following the fire). It was inevitable the German Communist Party would view the Dutch bricklayer as a “Nazi stooge”. In those ‘third period’ days, any leftist not within the Stalinist orbit was a ‘social fascist’, objectively a Nazi ally. The Stalinist press consoled their readers with glib assurances that Hitlerism was no more than the “death rattle of expiring capitalism” - soon the victorious working class would sweep away excrescences under the leadership of the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ - the KPD - so laying the foundations for the future socialist society.
Today, probably the majority of people believe van der Lubbe was a congenital delinquent in the service of the Nazis. All attempts to describe the real van der Lubbe come up against two books published, at the time, by Comintern propagandists, based in Paris: The brown book of the Hitler terror and the burning of the Reichstag (1933) and The second brown book of the Hitler terror (1934) - both ‘proving’ the Reichstag was ignited by the Nazis, a version made ‘credible’ by fabricated evidence to transform van der Lubbe into an occasional ‘speaker at Nazi meetings’, a degenerate homosexual or simply a Nazi stooge. The anonymous author of these texts was Otto Katz, a full time Comintern official based in Paris - ironically, 20 years later he was to be hanged in Prague as one of the accused in the Slánský trial.
Within a few weeks, the first book appeared in 17 languages with millions of copies in worldwide circulation - becoming the bible of the anti-fascist crusade. Details of relevant behind-the-scenes activities in the books’ creation are described in Arthur Koestler’s autobiographical The invisible writing (1954). Koestler worked for Willi Münzenberg, who had escaped from Germany on the night of the fire and set up office in Paris as western propaganda chief of the Comintern. As a record of the trial events, Koestler’s book has little value, presenting only the official ‘party line’, which the author admits comprises “ a unique feat in the history of propaganda ... producing international committees, congresses and movements as a conjurer produces rabbits out of his hat ... Münzenberg organised the Reichstag counter-trial, the public hearings in Paris and London in 1933 ... We had no direct proof, no access to witnesses, only underground communications with Germany ... We had to rely on guesswork, on bluffing and on intuitive knowledge of the methods and minds of our opposite numbers in totalitarian conspiracy.”
It is time these Stalinist falsifications are buried once and for all. Much of what follows is culled from the work of Fritz Tobias, who in 1946 joined the Hanover Denazification Court and later the German State Denazification Commission. He carried out a thorough examination of all existing evidence relating to the fire and subsequent trial, held in Leipzig, September-December 1933. There was little ‘new’ evidence: rather a re-examination of all the material that had been available. In the summer of 1956, Tobias was asked by the Federal Information Office to publish his findings; cautiously he agreed to send extracts to Der Spiegel. The howls of rage that followed their publication were the consequence of the recent proximity of the Hitler regime - the Stalinist version of the Reichstag fire had become the generally accepted ‘official’ history - the Nazis had fired the building! People were less interested in learning the truth than their fear these later ‘findings’ might be perceived as an attempt to ‘whitewash the Nazis’. The English edition of Tobias’s book, The Reichstag fire (1964), was introduced by AJP Taylor, who apologised for having been duped by the Stalinist lies.
An active revolutionary from his teenage years, a member of the Young Communist League, Marinus van der Lubbe soon proved his ability to influence others. A studious youth, he was well known at the Leyden public library, where he first studied Marx’s Capital, although his hatred of capitalism was based less on Marxist science than on youthful enthusiasm and utopian dreams. Although a childish prank had severely damaged both his eyes (from which he never fully recovered his eyesight - he was awarded a small disability pension), he was of good physique, and started work on building sites.
Well known by the local police as chair of the local Communist Youth, he rented an empty storeroom, baptising it ‘Lenin House’; it became the meeting place for the Communist Youth, and he busied himself there writing leaflets, and editing factory and school pamphlets, increasingly centred on the unemployed movement; he became well known at the head of processions through the streets of Leyden.
His break with the Dutch Communist Party was inevitable. His independent attitude and spontaneous identification with broad self-activity of the working class made it increasingly difficult for him to accept the discipline of the sectarian Stalinist party; he drifted into associations with ‘left deviationists’ (Left Workers Opposition) and finally the Party of International Communists (or Rade Communists). With only a handful of members in Holland, these ‘council communists’ and their supporters solidly defended van der Lubbe when the Leipzig trial got under way, publishing the Red Book, which demolished the slanders of his being a Nazi agent. Marinus perceived Hitler’s triumph as a possible “tinder point” for revolution. While the communist press consoled readers with glib assurances that Hitlerism was merely the “death rattle” of expiring capitalism, van der Lubbe hoped the situation might be quite different in Germany. Following heated meetings with friends and comrades about revolutionary possibilities bound to happen across the border, he set out on foot for Berlin.
He spent his first night in a men’s hostel; the following day saw a concert organised by the Social Democrats closed down by the police without explanation - yes, his arrival in the German capital soon disillusioned him. Nowhere any resolution to fight against the brown ‘mercenaries of capitalism’. He visited labour exchanges, welfare offices, mingled with the locals, suggested protest marches (which he had found so successful back home). Nobody was interested in his suggestions; indeed he was treated with suspicion or as a ‘foreign’ busybody. He quickly realised there was no hope of any ‘mass revolutionary action’.
The final straw was his attending a communist mass meeting at the Sportpalast, addressed by communist deputy Wilhelm Pieck. Van der Lubbe prepared notes, hoping for the opportunity to express a point of view, but the meeting was closed by the police as soon as it started - again, no protest or resistance on the part of the audience! The great Communist Party of Germany had gone into voluntary liquidation! Completely disgusted, van der Lubbe returned to his hostel, seething with impotent rage and unable to fall asleep for a long time. One can readily imagine his distress, irritation and frustration. It became apparent to him, if anything was going to happen, he would have to initiate it himself. He decided to set a number of public buildings on fire, hoping that once the intimidated masses saw these strongholds of capitalism going up in flames, they might, even at this late hour, shake off their lethargy.
The final police report, submitted to the court by detective-inspector Zirpins, encapsulated everything about van der Lubbe’s individual actions on the evening of February 27 1933:
“There is no doubt that van der Lubbe committed the crime entirely by himself. This conclusion follows from the investigations, the objective facts and the precise answers of the suspect ... the scene of the crime and his activities there were described by van der Lubbe right from the start (ie, before the official reconstruction of the crime on the spot) in such detail - seats of fire, damage caused, trails left and paths taken - as only the incendiary himself could have supplied. Had he not been there himself, he could not possibly have described and later demonstrated on the spot all these facts and especially the smaller fires which he had lit at random. The reconstruction of the crime proved that all the details he gave were absolutely correct.”
Both Moscow communists and Nazi publicists presented the main defendant as a congenital idiot, a juvenile delinquent, a pathological vagrant, a pathological liar, incorrigible boaster and homosexual call-boy in the service of Nazis/communists. Here is Koestler’s version:
“Lubbe was a horrifying apparition, half man, half beast. Saliva was dribbling from his mouth, and mucus from his nostrils down on to the floor. From time to time his counsel wiped his face with a paper handkerchief. When standing, Lubbe’s hands were dangling down and his head bent on his chest like a chimpanzee’s. When sitting, his head hung between his knees like a broken puppet’s.”
Koestler was not present at the hearings he described - van der Lubbe had spent seven months in heavy, painful chains, impeding the blood circulation and leaving visible sores on his feet. Indeed his general appearance caused a tremendous stir among observers, especially towards the end of the trial. While police witnesses described Marinus as mentally alert and quick to respond, now he appeared completely broken and dull-witted.
Contrary to the assertion of Koestler and others, there is no reason to believe he had been drugged; had he yielded to Nazi pressure to ‘confess’ to being part of a ‘communist plot’, his gaolers might well have drugged him to keep his mouth shut in public. A much more likely explanation is that after many months of consistently repeating the same simple truth, he eventually gave up in despair when he realised the presiding judge was far less interested in facts than in his own pet theory. Unlike the other defendants, with the world Stalinist movement supporting them, Marinus remained isolated and alone, unaware even of the tiny (if growing) band of supporters, largely in Holland. (There is evidence that from the beginning of the trial, Dimitrov knew a secret agreement had been concluded between the Soviet state security GPU and the Gestapo, according to which, whatever the outcome of the trial, he would reach Moscow in safety.) Alone in the dock, without a single friend or colleague, is it is not possible van der Lubbe finally cracked from exhaustion and suffered a total nervous breakdown? Perhaps it is possible to pinpoint the final breaking point? On the 43rd day of the trial, van der Lubbe stood up and asked if he might ask a question. He was told he could - here is a portion of the transcripts:
Van der Lubbe: “I should like to know when the verdict will be pronounced and executed.”
President: “I can’t tell you that yet. It all depends on you, on your naming your accomplices.”
Van der Lubbe: “But that has all been cleared up. I fired the Reichstag by myself, and there must be a verdict. The thing has gone on for eight months and I cannot agree with all this at all.”
President: “Tell us then who your accomplices were.”
Van der Lubbe: My fellow defendants have all admitted they had nothing to do with the fire, were not even in the Reichstag, and did not fire it.”
President: “I have told you repeatedly that the court cannot accept your statement that you were alone. You simply must tell us with whom you did it and who helped you.”
Van der Lubbe: “I can only repeat that I set fire to the Reichstag all by myself. After all, it has been shown during this trial that Dimitrov and the others were not there. They are in the trial, that is quite true, but they were not in the Reichstag. The court does not believe me, but it’s true all the same.”
President: “You have confessed to the crime and there is therefore no argument on that point. But it remains a fact that other persons have been accused and that the court must now decide whether or not these people are guilty. It would help us greatly if you now admit with whom you committed the crime.”
Van der Lubbe: “I can only admit that I started the fire by myself; for the rest I cannot agree with what this court is trying to do. I now demand a verdict. What you are doing is a betrayal of humanity, of the police, and of the Communist and National Socialist Party. All I ask for is a verdict.”
Here, by contrast, are extracts from Dimitrov’s address to the open court:
“Van der Lubbe has by no means told the truth in this court and he remains persistently silent. Although he did have accomplices, this fact does not decide the fate of the other accused ... While the representative of political insanity sits today in the dock, the representative of provocation has disappeared! Whilst this fool, van der Lubbe, was carrying out his clumsy attempts at arson in the corridors and cloakrooms, were not other unknown persons preparing the conflagration in the sessions chamber ...”.
At this point van der Lubbe began to laugh silently. His whole body was shaken with spasms of laughter. Dimitrov continued, pointing at van der Lubbe as he spoke: “What is van der Lubbe? A communist? Inconceivable! An anarchist? No! He is a declassed worker, a rebellious member of the scum of society ... he is the misused tool of fascism ... he should be condemned to death for having worked against the proletariat ... the Reichstag fire had nothing whatever to do with any activity of the German Communist Party - not only nothing to do with an insurrection, but nothing to do with a strike, a demonstration or anything of that nature ... the Reichstag fire was not regarded by anyone - I exclude criminals and the mentally deranged - as the signal for insurrection.”
What a revealing comparison! The Dutchman courageously persisted throughout the proceedings in absolving his co-defendants, while the Bulgarian communist referred to the Hollander as “belonging to the class of criminals” and “mentally deranged”. For revolutionaries, Dimitrov and his fellows deserve to be remembered in infamy for his unbridled slanders directed at a comrade who had sought to stimulate the kinds of action that could have become the opening shots of resistance to the Nazi tide enveloping them - acts that might have aroused the German people to accept the challenge.
Dimitrov and his three associates were adjudged ‘not guilty’ - Marinus van der Lubbe was sentenced to death ... despite appeals and countless petitions from all over the world, the executioner, in top hat and tails, called for him on January 10 1934. Van der Lubbe was calm and peaceful, no tears, no belated confession. He was decapitated - executed by virtue of a special law, made retrospective for his case; his capital crime was not to have set fire to the Reichstag, but to have had accomplices in doing so!
Most Marxists appreciate that protest actions such as van der Lubbe’s only have meaningful revolutionary significance when integrated with a prevailing political consciousness; as part of a mass movement, a personal act can be of the greatest significance. Van der Lubbe’s tragedy was that, as opposed to his actions at home, in Germany he stood alone, far removed from any ‘movement’.
Revolutionaries should make a point of reading the Fritz Tobias book - a full analysis of the documentary evidence that not only vindicates Marinus van der Lubbe from the slanders thrown at him by his co-accused and the world’s Moscow communists, but also reveals the equally despicable manner by which the Nazis attempted to force van der Lubbe to implicate his cowardly co-accused, and who executed him because of his refusal to do so.
- Rudolf Slánský, general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and 13 others (11 of them Jews) were convicted of participating in “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism” in December 1952. Eleven were executed after having confessed in court and requested to be sentenced to death.