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Marinus van der Lubbe: No lone arsonist but not necessarily innocent

For many years, most people believed that the Nazis burned down the German parliament, the Reichstag, in late February 1933, blaming it on the Communists and using the blaze as the pretext to pass a whole raft of dictatorial measures. This was in large part due to a highly effective contemporary Communist propaganda dossier The Brown Book, which soon turned what could have been a Nazi propaganda coup into an international public relations nightmare. Over the past few decades, however, we have gradually accepted the view that the sole culprit was the Dutch Communist sympathiser, and former party member, Marinus van der Lubbe, who was caught red-handed at the scene. Documents which seemed to confirm Nazi guilt turned out to be forgeries. Now the American historian Benjamin Carter Hett asks us to think again about what he calls "the Third Reich's enduring mystery".

The question of who actually burned down the Reichstag mattered not only then, but has mattered since. After the Second World War, there were legal implications for the Nazis involved, who had a personal interest in van der Lubbe's guilt. With a series of articles on the fire in Der Spiegel that eventually became a book published in 1960, Fritz Tobias questioned the conspiracy- theory version in the context of the Cold War. As a German patriot and Social Democrat, he had good reason to suspect van der Lubbe, sympathiser with a creed that had inflicted such havoc on his party and country, not to mention the eastern half of the continent. Hett shows, however, that Tobias was not squeamish in his methods to ensure that his version of the story prevailed, effectively threatening to expose the Nazi past of his rivals if they persisted in their opposition, and using his position in the German internal intelligence agency to gather information not just on the fire but also on critics of his views.

The Reichstag fire debate also had considerable intellectual ramifications. Tobias saw in the sole guilt of van der Lubbe, and his dismantling of the conspiracy theory, confirmation of his "cock-up" view of history. "We must", he famously wrote in one Spiegel article, "come to terms with the disturbing fact that blind chance, and error, unleashed a revolution". A new generation of German historians in the 1960s, led by Hans Mommsen, adopted Tobias's view, not because they wished to exculpate the Nazis, but because they rejected the "intentionalist" or "Hitler-centric" view of events which saw the dictator proceeding according to a grand plan rather than presiding weakly over a more "polycentric" regime of feuding barons. These structuralist scholars harboured no apologetic intent, rather their desire was to spread the blame more broadly from Hitler and his close associates to the institutions and groups that had made the Nazi dictatorship possible.

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