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What Was the Reichstag Fire?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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The Reichstag fire was an act of arson which played a critical role in the history of 20th century Germany. This fire was used as a pretext for the Nazi party to gain control of Germany, with Adolf Hitler taking advantage of the event to push through several acts of legislation which effectively allowed him to become a dictator, despite the fact that Germany was technically a democratic republic. Because the fire played such a major role in the Nazi rise to power, it has been closely examined by numerous historians.

In the German government of 1933, the Reichstag was the German Parliament. The Parliament met at a central building known as the Reichstag building, located in Berlin. On 27 February 1933, not long after Hitler had been appointed chancellor, a fire broke out in the building late at night. The fire department was called and it responded quickly, but the fire was out of control, and it had gutted the building, rendering it useless. A Dutch man, Marinus van der Lubbe, was found in the building, and he proudly proclaimed that he had set the fire as a political act.

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The Communist affiliations of the suspect led some people to conclude that the fire was actually a Communist plot, part of a ploy to take over Germany. The Nazis turned this to their advantage, pushing for the election of more Nazis to the Reichstag, arguing that only they could protect Germany. This in turn led to the passage of the Enabling Act, which allowed the German government to pass laws without the consent or participation of the Reichstag.

Immediately after the Reichstag fire, Hitler pushed for the passage of the Reichstag Fire Decree, which severely curtailed civil liberties for the German people. The Decree was supposed to be a temporary measure to protect Germany from external threats, but it also happened to handily remove the opposition to the Nazi party, setting the stage for Hitler to take control of the German government.

The origins of the Reichstag fire continue to be debated. Marinus van der Lubbe likely did set the fire, but he may have worked alone, not in collusion with Communists. It is also possible that someone else set the fire and he took the credit, and specifically that the Nazis set the fire and framed him. If the Nazis were not involved, the Reichstag fire certainly happened at a time which was convenient for them, and if they were, it was a coldly calculated act which had some very serious repercussions for Germany.

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