George Caffentzis, "9/11 and the Reichstag Fire"

"A Note on 9/11 and the Reichstag Fire"

By George Caffentzis

Many commentators on the events of 9/11/2001 have compared it to the Reichstag fire of February 27-28, 1933. It is true that the aftermath of both events gave the government in power the opportunity to pass new repressive legislation.For example, on February 28, 1993 "President von Hindenburg passed a Decree for the Protection of the People and State, which effectively suspended the Weimar Constitution. The decree set aside the constitutional guarantees for freedom of the person, of speech, of the press, of association and assembly, and of the privacy of the mails and of telephone and telegraph" (Davidson 1996: 22). In the Bush Administration's case, the passage of the US Patriot Act and the jailing of more than a thousand immigrants without trial and legal protections were undoubtedly supported by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

But these comparisons do not end with noting similarities between the consequences of the two events. Many "conspiracy theorists" argue that the Bush Administration was "behind" the crashes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These people often claim a parallel with the Reichstag fire, since they assume that the Nazis planned the Reichstag fire in order to lay the foundation for the dictatorial rule they later imposed on the basis of the burned cinders of the parliament building.

It is all very neat, but problematic, because it has never been established that the Nazis actually committed the arson. On the contrary, in the nearly seventy years since the event, the tide of scholarly accusation shifted from the Nazis to the Communists (in the 1930s and 1940s) and back again, then in the 1950s and 1960s scholars ended in blaming the whole thing on the "former communist," and/or "anarchist" Marinus van der Lubbe alone, and even to this day there is still controversy. As the latest Encyclopedia Britannica article on the Fire available on-line concludes:

— "The supposed arsonist was a Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, whom some have claimed was brought to the scene of the crime by Nazi agents. Others have contended that there was no proof of Nazi complicity in the crime, but that Hitler merely capitalized on van der Lubbe's independent act. The fire is the subject of continued debate and research" (Enclyclopedia Britannica 2002).

Just so that one can see that it is not so easy to establish such conspiracy theories beyond a reasonable doubt, what follows is a chronologically ordered set of quotations concerning the Reichstag fire from books and articles that mention it in a modest university's library dating from 1964 to 1999:

— "The convenience of the pretext which Goring found for attacking the Communists led many (including the present author) to believe that the burning of the Reichstag was, in fact, planned and carried out by the Nazis themselves" (Bullock 1964: 262).

— "The melodrama of February 28, 1933 was ordered, staged, and produced by Hitler himself" (Payne 1973).

— "The arsonist, a twenty-four-year-old native of Holland, Marinus van der Lubbe, had in fact also made up his mind to burn down the Reichstag. A strong, lumpish young man, his protest against capitalism was setting buildings on fire. Four years earlier he had resigned in disgust from the Communist Party to join International Communists, a tiny splinter froup which opposed Moscow policies. He had come to Berlin a week earlier under the impression that great things were about to happen there. But attendance at Social Democratic and Communist demonstrations convinced him that the German workers would start a revolution only under the impetus of some startling event. He hoped the sight of governmental strongholds going up in flames would inspire the lethargic German masses to revolt" (Toland 1976: 312).

— "In the bitter struggle between Nazis and Communists before and after Hitler's accession to power, both sides used every means possible, including forgeries, to denigrate the other. Each accused the other of responsiblity for the Reichstag fire. Nazis claimed that Marinus van der Lubbe, a half-crazed Dutch Communist, set the fire by himself, while the Communists attributed the deed to Nazis. In April 27, 1933 issue of the Manchester Guardian there appeared what has since become known as the Oberfohren Memorandum. It was supposedly written by Dr. Ernst Oberfohren, parliamentary leader of the German Nationalist party, to tell the inside story of the fire. Soon afterward, on May 7, Oberfohren was reported to have committed suicide...Scholars have since come to the conclusion that the Oberfohren Memorandum was a clever forgery. It was show Nazi guilt" (Snyder 1981: 103)

— "For a long time, historians generally agreed that the Nazis started the fire, but now most have concluded that the source of the fire remains unknown" (Bendersky 1985: 112).

— "[I]t is only recently--after a long controversy--that it would seem clear that the deranged Dutchman van der Lubbe was the sole culprit" (Stern 1989: 168)

— "[The Goebbels diaries] clarify two important points: first, the Nazis were not involved in the setting of the Reichstag fire in February 1933..." (Kater 1990).

— "New documents, mostly from former East German archives, support the view that the fire was actually a Nazi Plot" (Bahar and Kugel 1995).

— "Since that February night in 1933, the origins of the fire have been diligently investigated by criminologists, political scientists, historians, journalists, technicians, and others, and while they are far from agreed, it now seems not implausible that van der Lubbe was telling the truth when he said he was alone in setting it" (Davidson 1996: 21).

— "The character of the documents support the view that the Nazis manipulated the situation to make it appear that van der Lubbe acted alone in setting the fire and was not set up by the Hitler government, as now seems likely" (Schmadeke et al. 1999).

What a collection of certainties balanced by a plethora of "unknown"s, "likely"s, "not implausible"s, and "it would seem clear"s! It should also be remembered that this lack of unanimity is with respect to the actions of a regime that has been discredited, defeated in battle and whose records have been open for historians to study for more than half a century.

I have gleaned these quotes not to make some postmodern point about the indeterminateness of historical truth. But I am warning those who want to use a conspiracy methodology for the explanation of historical events for political purposes to be prepared for a long, perhaps inconclusive struggle. If the Reichstag fire debate has raged for almost seventy years with no sign of abating, then one can expect that the 9/11 conspiracy controversy will have an equally long life cycle.


Babar, Alexander and Kugel, Wilfried. 1995. Abstract: Der Reichstagsbrand: Neue Aktenfunde entlarven die NS-TATER. Zeitschrift fur Geschchtwissenschaft. 43 (9): 823-832.

Bendersky, Joseph W. 1985. A History of Nazi Germany. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Bullock, Alan 1964. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. A completely Revised Edition. New York: Harper & Row.

Davidson, Eurgene 1996. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Kater, Michael H. 1990. Abstract: Inside Nazi: The Goebbels Diaries, 1924-1941. Canadian Journal of History. 28 (2): 233-243.

Payne, Robert 1973. The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler. New York: Praeger.

Schumadeke, Jurgen et al. 1999. Abstract: Der Reichstagsbrand in Neuen Licht. Histoische Zeitschrift 269 (3): 603-651.

Stern, Fritz 1989. Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History. New York: Vintage Books.

Toland, John 1976. Adolf Hitler. Volume 1. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.