Day of Judgement: Reichstag Arson Trial, 84 Years Ago

Eighty Four Years Ago, Today Dimitrov Was Acquitted in the  Reichstag Fire trial at Leipzing

Twenty seven days after Adolf Hitler was sown in as Chancellor of Germany and head of the coalition government, a fire broke out, arson, that brought the Reichstag down. The home of the German Parliament building was burnt down. Hitler used this incident to blame it on a murderous communist conspiracy, although later it was largely believed to have been the action of a lone Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe who was caught near the building. The hysteria and propaganda around the event was pivotal in consolidating power of Nazi rule in Germany.
News of the fire that started in the Reichstag building, was received by an alarm call of a Berlin fire station received shortly after 9 p.m. By the time the firefighters and the police arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies part of the Reichstag was almost completely destroyed, engulfed in flames. The police conducted a thorough search inside the building and found van der Lubbe. He was arrested, as were four communist leaders soon after.
Adolf Hitler pushed German President Paul von Hindenburg to declare an emergency after passing a decree. This act suspended all civil liberties and allowed the Nazi brown shirts to hound the Communist party of Germany. Mass arrests of communists followed, including all of the Communist Party parliamentary delegates. With their bitter rival communists gone and their seats empty, the Nazi Party went from being a party dependent on others. to the majority, thus enabling Hitler to consolidate his power. In January 1933, the Nazis had only 32% of the seats.
In February 1933 itself, three men were arrested who were to play pivotal roles during the Leipzig Trial, known also as the “Reichstag Fire Trial”: Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev and Blagoy Popov (all Bulgarians). Who caused the fire? To date this subject is the topic of historical research. Historians disagree as to whether van der Lubbe acted alone, as he said, to protest the condition of the German working class. The Nazis accused the Comintern of the act. Some other historians endorse the theory, that the arson was planned and ordered by the Nazis as a false flag operation.
In July 1933, three persons were charged with setting the Reichstag on fire. They were Marinus van der Lubbe, Ernst Torgler, georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popoy and Vasil Tanev. From September 21 to 23 December 1933, the Leipzig Trial took place and was presided over by judges from the German Supreme Court, the Reichsgericht. The accused were charged with arson and with attempting to overthrow the government.
Hitler used the Leipzig Trial for state propaganda against communists and it was predicted that the court would find the Communists guilty on all counts and approve the repression and terror exercised by the Nazis against all opposition forces in the country. At the end of the trial, however, only Van der Lubbe was convicted, while his fellow defendants were found not guilty. In 1934, Van der Lubbe was beheaded in a German prison yard. In 1967, a court in West Berlin overturned the 1933 verdict, and posthumously changed Van der Lubbe’s sentence to 8 years in prison. In 1980, another court overturned the verdict, but was overruled. In 1981, a West German court posthumously overturned Van der Lubbe’s 1933 conviction and found him not guilty by reason of insanity. This ruling was subsequently overturned. He was however pardoned  in January 2008, he was pardoned under a 1998 law for the crime on the grounds that anyone convicted under Nazi Germany is officially not guilty. The law allows pardons for people convicted of crimes under the Nazis, based on the idea that the laws of Nazi Germany “went against the basic ideas of justice”.
Georgi Dimitrov began his testimony on the third day of the trial. He gave up his right to a court-appointed lawyer and defended himself successfully. When warned by Judge Bürger to behave himself in court, Dimitrov stated: “Herr President, if you were a man as innocent as myself and you had passed seven months in prison, five of them in chains night and day, you would understand it if one perhaps becomes a little strained.” During the course of his defence, Dimitrov claimed that the organizers of the fire were senior members of the Nazi Party and frequently verbally clashed with Göring at the trial.
Highpoint of the trial was on November 4, 1933, when Göring was in the witness box and was cross-examined by Dimitrov. Excerpts:
Dimitrov: Herr Prime Minister Göring stated on February 28 that, when arrested, the “Dutch Communist Van der Lubbe had on his person his passport and a membership card of the Communist Party”. From whom was this information taken?
Göring: The police search all common criminals, and report the result to me.
Dimitrov: The three officials who arrested and examined Van der Lubbe all agreed that no membership card of the Communist Party was found on him. I should like to know where the report that such a card had been found came from.
Göring: I was told by an official. Things which were reported to me on the night of the fire…could not be tested or proven. The report was made to me by a responsible official, and was accepted as a fact, and as it could not be tested immediately it was announced as a fact. When I issued the first report to the press on the morning after the fire the interrogation of Van der Lubbe had not been concluded. In any case I do not see that anyone has any right to complain because it seems proved in this trial that Van der Lubbe had no such card on him.
Dimitrov: I would like to ask the Minister of the Interior what steps he took to make sure that Van der Lubbe’s route to Hennigsdorf, his stay and his meetings with other people there were investigated by the police to assist them in tracking down Van der Lubbe’s accomplices?
Göring: As I am not an official myself, but a responsible Minister it was not important that I should trouble myself with such petty, minor matters. It was my task to expose the Party, and the mentality, which was responsible for the crime.
Dimitrov: Is the Reichsminister aware of the fact that those that possess this alleged criminal mentality today control the destiny of a sixth part of the world – the Soviet Union?
Göring: I don’t care what happens in Russia! I know that the Russians pay with bills, and I should prefer to know that their bills are paid! I care about the Communist Party here in Germany and about Communist crooks who come here to set the Reichstag on fire!
Dimitrov: This criminal mentality rules the Soviet Union, the greatest and best country in the world. Is Herr Prime Minister aware of that?
Göring: I shall tell you what the German people already know. They know that you are behaving in a disgraceful manner! They know that you are a Communist crook who came to Germany to set the Reichstag on fire! In my eyes you are nothing, but a scoundrel, a crook who belongs on the gallows!”.
The judge played safe in his verdict. Judge Bürger stated that while he believed that there had been, indeed,  a Communist conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag, he said that except for in the case of Van der Lubbe, there was insufficient evidence to connect the accused to the fire or the alleged conspiracy. Only Van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death. The rest were acquitted and were expelled to the Soviet Union, where they received a heroic welcome. The one exception was Torgler, who was taken into “protective custody” by the police until 1935. After being released, he assumed a pseudonym and moved away from Berlin.
Hitler was enraged with this outcome of this trial. He decreed that henceforth treason—among many other offenses—would only be tried by a newly established People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof). The People’s Court later became associated with the number of death sentences it handed down, including those following the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, which were presided over by then Judge-President Roland Freisler.
December 23, 1933 was the day Dimitrov was set free.



Related Articles