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The Reichstag on fire


It was four to five degrees below zero in Berlin’s city centre on the evening of 27 February 1933; an icy easterly wind made it seem even colder. In every other way, however, this appeared to be an ordinary winter evening. There was nothing to suggest that the events of this night would go down in German history and cause heated debates until the present day.

An election campaign was taking place – the following Sunday, the Germans were to vote for yet another new parliament, even though barely six months had passed since the last election. And of course much had changed since Adolf Hitler had been appointed Reich chancellor exactly four weeks earlier, heading up a coalition of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei [NSDAP; National Socialist German Workers’ Party] and the farright Deutschnationale Volkspartei [DNVP; German National People’s Party, usually known informally as the German Nationals or simply the Nationalists]. Since then, the publication of communist and social democratic newspapers had not been permitted on several occasions.

From 22 February onwards, thousands of SA and SS [Schutzstaffel; protection squadrons] men had been appointed as auxiliary policemen; a position many abused. Brawls between these gangs of Nazi ‘brownshirts’ and supporters of the Rotfrontenkämpferbund [Red Front Fighters’ League] became increasingly common; in the capital alone, more than a dozen people had been killed as a result of these riots since 30 January. Nobody still believed that the parties taking part in the election campaign did so with equal chances. While the Prussian police force, controlled by Hermann Göring, would dissolve meetings of the opposition for trivial reasons, the NSDAP was practically never interfered with in this way.

It was quiet in the Reichstag building on 27 February, as Reich President Paul von Hindenburg had dissolved parliament immediately after Hitler’s appointment. The Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands [KPD; Communist Party of Germany] was using its offices in the building after its regular party headquarters, the Karl-Liebknecht-Haus at Bülowplatz, had recently been occupied, searched and closed by the police. However, Hitler’s opponents were not yet giving up: the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands [SPD; Social Democratic Party of Germany] had brought forward the original date of its large convention at the Sportpalast to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Karl Marx’s death from 14 March to this Monday evening in order to mobilise as many voters as possible. However, the police broke up the event, which led to concerns that an unauthorised demonstration by angry social democrats might take place in the government district. In the end, the crowd dispersed peacefully and the area around the Reichstag remained quiet.

However, the calm only lasted until 9.00 p.m. It was at this time that theology student Hans Flöter was on his way home. He tried to work in the Prussian State Library as often as possible, and on this night too he had worked until late in the reading rooms of the magnificent building, located on the boulevard Unter den Linden. Now he was briskly walking home, turning into the Hindersinstraße between the Reichstag and the river Spree. He crossed the Königsplatz and walked past the Bismarck Memorial and the west side of the Reichstag, which was only sparsely lit – the Berlin magistrate had advised the municipal gas works to light only every other street lamp from 1 October 1932. Flöter was just crossing the southern end of the driveway of the parliament building when he was startled by the sharp sound of breaking glass. The noise came from the Reichstag building, or, to be exact, from a window on the main floor, right next to the large portico. The student looked up when he heard the noise again. Evidently, glass was being broken – and that was likely to be bad news. His suspicion was confirmed when he was able to make out a person who seemed to be carrying a burning object. Flöter had seen enough: this was a case for the police. As he walked past the Reichstag building regularly, he knew that two Schupos – as policemen were commonly known in Berlin – patrolled the area in the evenings. The student ran off straight away and indeed came across an officer, Chief Constable (Oberwachtmeister) Karl Buwert, on the northern side of the driveway. Flöter called out to him that someone had forcefully gained entry to the parliament building, but the policeman hesitated at first. It was only when the student told him that he had seen fire that Buwert reacted and ran to the other side of the driveway. Flöter felt he had fulfilled his civic duty and continued on his way home. Before he set off, he checked his watch: it was 9.05 p.m.3

Immediately afterwards, Buwert spotted flickering flames on the main floor. Two more pedestrians had approached the policeman by now. The 21-year-old typesetter Werner Thaler was on his way to the Lehrter train station on the other side of the river. When he passed the southern portal, he also heard the shattering of glass and thought he could make out two men on the balcony in front of the Reichstag restaurant – but it could also have been one man and his shadow. Right away, Thaler looked for someone to alert, and found Buwert. At about the same time, another man had come up to Buwert. At first, the policeman thought it was the student Flöter, but he had already continued towards the Spree river. The three men – Buwert, Thaler and the young man – now stared at the window of the Reichstag restaurant. Already, several curtains were aflame and there was no longer any doubt that they were witnessing an arson attack on the parliament building. Thaler shouted: ‘Shoot!’ The policeman grabbed his gun and aimed at the silhouette now moving through the ground floor of the south-western wing, but did not hit his target. Only seconds later, at around 9.10 p.m., Buwert told the young man: ‘Run and raise the alarm at the Brandenburger Tor police station. Tell them that the Reichstag is on fire!’ The young man did not hesitate and ran off towards the Pariser Platz square. Meanwhile, two couples had run up to the policeman to tell him they had spotted flames in the Reichstag building. Buwert sent them to raise the alarm as well. After the two men and one of the women had unsuccessfully searched for a fire alarm box, they went to the ‘Haus der Ingenieure’ [‘House of Engineers’] in the Friedrich-Ebert Straße to ask the porter to alert the fire brigade by telephone. While Buwert continued to watch the flames behind the windows in the south-western wing of the Reichstag, he was joined by two colleagues who had been on patrol in the Tiergarten park and had been alarmed by the gun shot. After a brief discussion, one of them ran off towards the fire alarm box located in the Moltkestraße. It was 9.12 p.m.

One minute later, the main fire station in Berlin’s Lindenstraße received the emergency call from the ‘Haus der Ingenieure’. The nearest fire station in Linienstraße 128/129 was notified immediately, and the first fire engine raced to the scene at 9.14 p.m. Another fire engine left the station at Turmstraße 22 just sixty seconds later, when the alarm from the fire alarm box in the Moltkestraße was received. As the alarm had not been raised from within the Reichstag building itself, the mobilisation of a third fire station – the planned procedure in the event of a fire in parliament – did not take place. The four fire engines from each station drove towards the Reichstag building sounding their bells and horns but, according to regulations, ‘carefully enough to safely reach the destination’. At about the same time, the young man that Buwert had sent to raise the alarm arrived at the Brandenburger Tor police station. He called: ‘Come straight away! The Reichstag building is on fire!’ The duty officer, Police Lieutenant Emil Lateit, jumped up and got in the patrol car with two policemen; more men were to follow in a lorry. In accordance with the rules, one of the remaining officers noted their time of departure in the incident book: 9.15 p.m.

When Lateit arrived at the scene two minutes later, he immediately identified the situation as an emergency. He sent one of his assistants back to the police station to request reinforcement from police headquarters. Chief Constable Buwert reported to the lieutenant that the fire brigade had already been notified. Lateit gave the order to raise a major alarm and then ran off in order to find a way into the Reichstag. The southern portal was locked, and the porter’s office unstaffed, so the 34-year-old police officer ran down the Sommerstraße along the east facade of the building, where two further doorways were located, but they were also locked. Lateit kept running until he finally came across the night porter, Albert Wendt, in the northern portal, which remained open until 10.00 p.m. The porter had only just heard about the fire from another policeman – this was understandable, as this porter’s office was on the other side of the building, more than 100 metres away from the crime scene. Wendt promptly rang his boss, Maintenance Manager (Hausinspektor) Alexander Scranowitz, but was unable to reach him. Seconds later, the phone rang and the porter heard Scranowitz ask what was going on. The maintenance manager had seen the fire brigade race past his nearby riverside flat. Wendt told him that there was a fire in the restaurant of the Reichstag building. Scranowitz snapped: ‘And you haven’t reported this to me?’ He grabbed his coat and rushed over to the parliament building. It was about 9.20 p.m. when Scranowitz arrived at the portal facing the Spree river, and he immediately went inside with several policemen. They walked quickly through a long hall – the so-called Wandelhalle – to assess the situation, but lost sight of each other. Lateit was the first to check the plenary chamber, probably around 9.21 p.m. He saw open flames around the president’s table and felt the intense heat. The lieutenant turned around and ran back to the portal, noticing other small fires along the way. Lateit was convinced: this many individual fires could not have developed without someone’s interference. He told his colleagues: ‘Pistols out! Arson!’, then returned to the station to file a report. Meanwhile, at around 9.23 p.m., the maintenance manager and policeman Helmut Poeschel also reached the parliament building’s central room. Scranowitz glanced inside for ‘only a split second’ and then ‘very quickly’ closed the door again. In that short moment, however, he noticed that the curtains behind the wooden president’s desk were already ablaze. So far, however, there was not much smoke in the vast room.

At this point, the fire-fighting operations in the Reichstag building had just begun. At around 9.22 p.m., Senior Fire Chief (Oberbrandmeister) Emil Puhle and his men from the Linienstraße fire station reached the main floor via scaling ladders. Puhle singlehandedly smashed one of the parliament restaurant’s windows; in his haste, he did not notice that the adjoining window had already been broken into. The smaller fires in the restaurant were quickly put out, but because the firefighters did not know whether there were more fires further inside the building, Puhle kept going. At about the same time, Fire Chief Waldemar Klotz and his men from the Turmstraße fire station entered the Reichstag through the northern portal; they stormed onto the main floor with bucket pumps. While Klotz was stamping out some small flames in the carpet of one of the lobbies, he noticed a bright light ahead of him, towards the centre of the building. He had a look in the plenary chamber around 9.25 p.m., which was now dark and full of dense smoke. Although he could not see any open flames, he was suddenly hit by a wave of extraordinary heat. Instinctively, Klotz quickly closed the swing door again to prevent ‘darting flames’. The fire chief knew what to do: he asked for a hose to cool down the plenary chamber with water. Even though it took Klotz and his men just two minutes to get the hose ready, they were too late to prevent major damage.

At around 9.27 p.m., according to the report that Berlin Fire Chief (Branddirektor) Gustav Wagner later filed, the plenary chamber ‘suddenly turned into a sea of flames’. Back at the Reichstag, Senior Fire Chief Puhle noticed that when he opened the door to the chamber he was first hit by a wave of heat, but that the draught then abruptly pulled the other way. After that, he saw a roaring flame that shot ‘up towards the cupola’. From one moment to the next, the plenary chamber had turned into ‘a sea of flames – all the way around, from top to bottom, and in the middle’, that emanated a ‘great, blazing heat’. Fire Chief Klotz also watched the way the flames were rapidly spreading: ‘I could see the room turning red from the flames through the frosted glass window, through which I was watching.’ A further fire officer, Fritz Polchov, told the police that he had ‘never experienced a draught like this at a fire’ and that he ‘literally had to hold on so as not to be pulled into the flames’. His colleague Willy König said he had been reminded of the ‘flames of a forge’; he had also felt the sudden change of draught. Just moments later, the fire flared up with an ‘audible pop’. One fire officer said it was as though ‘a rocket had exploded’. Immediately after, the glass ceiling in the plenary chamber burst, giving the flickering flames access first to the air space beneath the cupola and, when its glass could no longer withstand the flames, to the cold February air outside. With the room’s conditions now resembling those of a fireplace, the wooden interior of the plenary chamber was devoured by the flames.

After checking the plenary chamber, Maintenance Manager Scranowitz and policeman Poeschel continued to search the main floor. They rushed through several adjoining rooms; the sound of their footsteps was swallowed by the thick carpets. Finally, they arrived in the Bismarck Hall. They were standing beneath the large chandelier when, around 9.26 p.m., they saw a figure stumbling towards them from the southern inner courtyard, where the clubrooms were located. When the man spotted the two men, he stopped abruptly and then took a step back. However, Poeschel had already raised his gun and shouted: ‘Hands up!’ The figure, bare-chested except for braces, immediately raised his arms. Poeschel could now see that the man was a scruffy fellow, tall and burly, with dark, untidy hair that hung into his face. The policeman quickly searched the young man, but did not find any weapons, apart from a pocket knife, which he confiscated. In his back pocket he found a passport. There was no doubt: this man did not belong inside the parliament building, particularly not at the time of a fire-fighting operation. Poeschel was sure he had apprehended the arsonist. Scranowitz, shaking with rage, shouted at the suspect: ‘Why did you do this?’ The heavily accented reply was: ‘Protest, protest!’ The maintenance manager was no longer able to control himself, and punched the man hard. Poeschel frogmarched the man – who, according to his passport, was a Dutchman called Marinus van der Lubbe – to the exit. There, someone threw a blanket over him, and Poeschel walked him over to the Brandenburger Tor police station. According to the log book, they arrived at 9.35 p.m.

Extracted from The Reichstag Fire by Sven Felix Kellerhoff

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